A $7.7 million runway safety warning system that alerts pilots to potential runway safety hazards was installed at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) earlier this year.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced the installation of the new Runway Status Lights (RWSL) system at a press conference on Thursday, June 11th at the Flight Path Learning Center at LAX.

The Runway Status Lights system uses a series of red lights embedded in the pavement to warn pilots if it’s unsafe to enter or cross a runway, or to take off.

The Runway Status Lights have been installed on the north airfield departure runway, at five taxiways on the north airfield and three taxiways on the south airfield, said Wes Timmons, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) director of runway safety.

LAX is the first airport to have the lights installed on multiple runways, although it is the third airport to get Runway Status Lights following several years of successful tests at Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport and at San Diego International Airport, said Ian Gregor, FAA communications manager for the Western-Pacific Region.

Three incidents were documented at Dallas-Ft. Worth where the system prevented potentially serious runway incidents from occurring, and the number of runway incursions at the airport’s test runway dropped from ten in the two-and-a-half years before the lights were installed to three during the two-and-a-half years after the lights were installed, said Gregor.

Villaraigosa said the system was installed two years sooner because he and the city Board of Airport Commissioners decided to pay for the system from Los Angeles World Airports funding due to the safety ramifications, rather than waiting two years for the FAA to pay for the system. The FAA installed the system and will maintain it.

The mayor said the entire project, from signing the agreement to completing the project, took only 14 months.

LAX had one of the highest numbers of reported runway incursions in the U.S from 2000 to 2003, and with the reconfiguration of the south airfield complex — moving the runway 55 feet south and the construction of the center taxiway — “it’s now impossible on the south complex to exit runways onto high-speed taxiways and get onto another active runway,” said Timmons. “Now aircraft get onto the center taxiway to control speed, then turn to go across a runway.”

Primarily because of the south airfield reconfiguration, LAX has one of the lower incursion rates among the country’s 20 busiest airports, said Timmons.

“Runway incursions are identified by federal fiscal years — the 2009 fiscal year began October 1st, 2008 — and the number of incursions plunged after we began using completed portions of the center taxiway on the south airfield in late 2007,” Gregor said.

Gregor supplied the year/incursion figures: 2000 (26); 2001 (21); 2002 (16); 2003 (16); 2004 (11); 2005 (20); 2006 (11); 2007 (21); 2008 (nine); and 2009 (five, to date).

RUNWAY STATUS LIGHTS

There are two kinds of Runway Status Lights — Runway Entrance Lights (RELs) and Takeoff Holding Lights (THLs). RELs alert pilots and vehicle drivers if it’s unsafe to enter or cross a runway. THLs alert pilots if it’s unsafe to take off.

The lights are connected to an airport’s ground radar system. The lights turn red if the ground radar detects a potential conflict between two aircraft or an aircraft and a vehicle.

Clearance to cross or enter a runway must be given by air traffic control. When the lights go off, the pilot or vehicle driver must verify clearance before proceeding, Timmons said.

ADDITIONAL SAFETY ENHANCEMENT AT LAX

The FAA also recently installed the most technologically advanced ground radar system, known as Airport Surface Detection Equipment-X or ASDE-X, in the air traffic control tower, said Timmons.

ASDE-X collects data from more sources than LAX’s previous ground radar system, and provides air traffic controllers with color map displays showing the location of all aircraft and vehicles on the runways and taxiways, and issuing visual and audible alarms of a potential collision hazard, Timmons said.

The FAA still advocates moving the north airfield to widen the distance between runways for safety, and community members are still opposed, stating that other measures can be taken — such as the Runway Safety Lights — to maintain safety.

“However, the fact is that more can be done at LAX. Technology such as the Runway Status Lights provides a last line of defense against runway incursions,” said Gregor.

“The first, and best, line of defense is proper airfield geometry — the kind of geometry we now see on the south airfield. We strongly believe that LAWA should reconfigure the north airfield similarly to how it reconfigured the south airfield,” he continued.

Representatives of the Airline Pilot’s Association and the LAX air traffic controllers say the runway lights should be installed at all LAX taxiways because of incursions occurring with aircraft maneuvering on the ground and the fact that 75 percent of aircraft cross at one particular point.

Villaraigosa said he had made a campaign commitment when he first ran for mayor to not reconfigure the north airfield unless there were significant safety issues. He said that a NASA study of the north airfield is still ongoing and he is waiting for the report.

“If safety is an issue, I’m going to have to bite the ‘proverbial bullet’ and do what I need to do to protect the safety of the passengers,” said Villaraigosa.

“The first time an accident happens, there won’t be anybody around except for me — that’s the way it works.

“Because I recognize that and know that I’m ultimately responsible, I’m going to have to make that decision, but right now, we don’t have the incontrovertible evidence. If the experts come back and say I have to do this to protect public safety, I will,” Villaraigosa said.

Information, www.RWSL.net/.

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