Near misses at airport

From the Miami Herald

There have been enough near-misses of disaster at Fort Lauderdale’s Executive Airport to create real doubt about how well the facility is run and whether the Federal Aviation Authority is doing enough to ensure maximum safety.

Since 2003, 29 planes have crashed either flying from or to FXE. In just over the last three years, eight people have died in crashes shortly after takeoff. There have also been several near disasters on the ground. FXE management has to do a better job of promoting air and ground safety. So must the FAA.

For years the agency dragged its feet on replacing FXE’s control tower, obsolete for 15 years now. Unbelievably, buildings obstruct air controllers’ view in one direction.

Yet only recently has the tower’s replacement become an FAA priority. What does priority mean in FAA lingo? It will be six years before the tower is replaced, but the risk is ever-present. The FAA should fast-track a new tower.

The airport is run by the city of Fort Lauderdale. It’s a great asset with a convenient location near Interstate 95 and Commercial Boulevard. FXE is a small general-aviation facility compared to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport or even to Miami-Dade County’s general-aviation airport in Opa-locka.

Yet, from 2001 to 2004 FXE reported more runway incursions and surface incidents than occurred at almost 500 other FAA-towered airports, including at Miami International, New York’s LaGuardia and Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International. Runway incursions occur when taxiing planes make contact with another vehicle. Surface incidents can include planes on the wrong runway, unauthorized personnel on runways and so forth.

FXE’s nearest competitor for these dubious honors is huge, busy Los Angeles International. Where FXE had 33 runway incursions, LAX had 31; FXE had 67 surface incidents, LAX reported 33.

Since 2004, FXE and the FAA have instituted reforms, including training for pilots, controllers and airport drivers, annual safety assessments and installing new signage and lighting. Runway incursions subsequently dropped to two in 2005, from 15 in 2001. Still, too many planes taking off from FXE have problems in the air. One cause may be under-resourced airlines. But if a company has poor safety and maintenance records, it should be denied access to U.S. airports, period.

If safety doesn’t keep improving at FXE, the odds of a disaster — a plane plunging into occupied buildings — are way too high. The city and the FAA mustn’t take that gamble.