FAA runway system won't be 'cure-all'

With aircraft moving violations on the nation's runways rising, the Federal Aviation Administration's delayed and overbudget radar-based warning system came under the gun on Capitol Hill last week.

At a hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's Aviation Subcommittee June 26, members of Congress and several panelists faulted the FAA's Airport Movement Area Safety System (AMASS) for not giving controllers enough warning time to avoid accidents, costing millions of dollars more than expected and being difficult to put into service at its 34 designated airports.

"I think people were looking to this system as a cure-all, and it won't [be]," said Kenneth Meade, Transportation Department inspector general. "I think people will be mistaken if they think this is the answer."

Although the FAA put AMASS into service for the first time this month in San Francisco and Detroit, Meade said it's still unclear how well the system will work and whether the schedule for other airports can be met. AMASS also sometimes issues false alerts to air traffic controllers, creating a safety problem where none existed before. "A false alert can be just as bad as no alert at all," he said.

Carol Carmody, acting chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said AMASS would not have given controllers enough time to prevent many of the close calls or accidents the board is investigating.

Indeed, a simulation of a 1999 O'Hare International Airport runway incursion — which occurs when the spacing between planes is compromised or potentially compromised—showed AMASS would not have given controllers enough warning to prevent the incident. The FAA then downgraded AMASS from an incursion-prevention system to a collision-prevention system, Carmody said.

The FAA was "overly optimistic" in terms of how well AMASS could predict runway incursions, said Steven Zaidman, FAA associate administrator for research and acquisitions. Regarding false alerts, he said AMASS, as an enhancement to Airport Surface Detection Equipment-3 radar, has a common radar defect of displaying "phantom targets" from beams reflected off buildings and other objects.

Some subcommittee members suggested that lower-tech solutions, such as a traffic-light system, might be more effective. Meade also stressed the need for pilots to have moving map displays in their cockpits, rather than relying solely on controllers' spoken commands.

FAA officials said that despite its troubles, AMASS will help increase safety when it is operational at all 34 airports, now expected by the end of 2002.

"AMASS, though not perfect, is what we have now," said William Davis, director of the FAA's Runway Safety Program. "It's better than not having [it]."

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