AP/David Zalubowski
An ambulance heads down an access road after leaving a runway off of which a
Continental Airlines jet skidded and injured passengers at Denver International
Airport on Dec. 20, 2008.

Denver Crash Shows Runway Safety Still a Concern

December 21, 2008 02:11 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
Saturday’s crash of a Continental Airlines Boeing 737 is the latest of several runway crashes. Earlier this year, a pilot raised concerns about dangerous runways.

Texas-Bound Plane Ends Up in Ravine

A Boeing 737 en route to Texas and carrying 115 people skidded off the runway while attempting to take off Saturday evening. No deaths have been reported, but 38 people were injured, two seriously, the Associated Press reported. 

The cause of the crash isn’t known, but, “The plane veered off course about 2,000 feet from the end of the runway and did not appear to have gotten airborne,” the news service said. It ended up on fire in a ravine, though firefighters were able to put the flames out quickly.

Saturday’s crash highlights what one pilot calls a significant increase in runway safety issues.

Poor organization and management are contributing to the increase, says Patrick Smith, a pilot, creator of and columnist for Salon magazine. In his May 9 column, Smith speculated that the “congested environments” of major airports and a lack of adequate signs and directions on runways are largely to blame.

Other factors include the growing number of “low-time pilots” on runways, whose inexperience can create difficulities on the runway, and significant understaffing at ground control centers. Smith believes that much of runway safety runs on “trust and acknowledgment,” and it is this human element, rather than technology, which can be detrimental to safety.

An increase in the number of crashes and near-crashes on and near runways this year seems to back up Smith’s assertions. There were 15 “runway incursions” during a six-month period that ended March 30, compared to 8 in that period last year, reported The New York Times on April 25. A runway incursion is the “unauthorized presence of a plane, vehicle or pedestrian on a runway,” according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

In 2007, a report by the Government Accountability Office found that air travelers face a “high risk of a catastrophic runway collision.”

In April, a Congolese plane crashed into a marketplace near the runway upon takeoff, killing at least 75 and injuring many more. And a runway incursion was responsible for the worst airplane crash in history, in the Canary Islands 30 years ago.

Background: Criticism and improvements of airport runway systems

Historical Context: Worst runway collision in history

Related Topics: Recent safety issues

Airline safety has been a problem throughout the world this year. In March, the FAA sought record fines of $10.2 million against Southwest Airlines for allegedly operating thousands of flights without conducting routine inspections.

The same month, United Airlines found faulty wiring in three of its Airbus A320s, which the company and government officials believe caused two nonfatal runway accidents, the Wall Street Journal reported.

In April, a Congolese jetliner crashed while taking off. The plane crashed into a nearby marketplace, resulting in an apparent 75 or more fatalities, and many more injuries. Congolese lawmaker Antoine Ghonda told reporters that one of the plane’s engines failed as it was taking off, and that weather was not a factor, findingDulcinea said.

Then United had to cancel 31 flights in April because officials discovered routine checks on Boeing 77 fire supression systems hadn't been done, CNN reported.

Reference: FAA adopts ICAO definition for runway incursions


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