The academic panel that conducted the “Los Angeles International Airport North Airfield Study” has said that after reviewing the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) critique of the study, it sees no reason to amend its analysis.
In an April 21st letter to Gina Marie Lindsey, executive director of Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA), the academic panel stated that “The FAA has done an outstanding job of advancing aviation safety in the U.S. For that reason, we — the authors of the LAX North Airfield Safety Study — take extremely seriously the concerns raised by the FAA about the panel’s analysis presented in February. We wanted to report to you in detail what we concluded after reviewing FAA’s comments so that you can make your own judgment about the soundness of our study.”
The comments were in response to an April 2nd letter from FAA Administrator J. Randolph Babbitt to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, requesting that the mayor and LAX officials have the north airfield reconfigured for “known safety risks, to improve the efficiency, and to meet the design standards on the LAX north airfield.”
The first of five primary reasons the panel said it reached its conclusions was that the North Airfield Study relied heavily on work performed by FAA.
“We used FAA effectiveness studies about new runway technologies, FAA models for the distribution of runway risk across U.S. airports, FAA data about the time and place of runway incursions, and FAA severity classifications for individual incursions,” stated the panel.
“Despite its negative tone, the critique does not identify any instances in which we applied FAA methodologies inappropriately or cited FAA data erroneously.”
The academic panel members are Arnold Barnett (MIT; panel chair); Michael Ball (University of Maryland); George Donohue (George Mason University); Mark Hansen (University of California- Berkeley); Amedeo Odoni (MIT); and Antonio Trani (Virginia Polytechnic Institute).
“The FAA’s concerns center on our risk estimates in the baseline case, under which the north runways at LAX would remain where they are. We estimated that, at traffic levels projected for 2020, fatal collisions would occur on the north airfield on average once every 200 years, and would cause the deaths of one of every 150 million LAX passengers,” the panel said.
“After reviewing the FAA critique of our study, we see no reason to amend our estimates. We disagree with the assessment that our work suffered from ‘several critical flaws in the study’s assumptions, methodology and conclusions.’ We continue to believe that our analysis was logical, accurate and conservative.”
In its letter to Lindsey, the panel said it had reached its additional conclusions because “data analyses in the critique that are said to contradict our findings also contradict the FAA’s own methods and findings related to runway safety;
“Incursion data and other evidence suggest that the existing north airfield at LAX is just as safe as the south airfield with its new centerline taxiway;
“Since completion of the centerline taxiway on LAX-South in mid-2008, both LAX-North and LAX-South match or outperform the incursion records of Atlanta, Chicago O’Hare, and Dallas-Fort Worth, three airports cited in the FAA critique as safer than LAX; and
“Many comments in the critique are not relevant to assessing the absolute level of safety on LAX north airfield, a quantity we were specifically asked to estimate.”
The panel said that it amplified on these comments below, but postponed detailed responses to many individual FAA comments to an appendix.
The baseline risk estimate was reached by the panel by considering three questions:
“At 2020 traffic levels, what will be the average frequency of fatal runway collisions at towered U.S. airports as a group?;
“Given that a fatal runway collision occurred under 2020 traffic levels at a towered U.S. airport, what is the probability that it would occur at LAX north airfield rather than elsewhere?; and
“Given a fatal runway collision on the LAX north airfield, what number of deaths might be expected?”
The panel’s letter went on to state that “As we understand the FAA critique that accompanied Administrator Babbitt’s letter, the FAA did not disagree with our procedures for answering the first and third of these questions. More specifically, the critique took no issue with our estimate of the national frequency of fatal runway collisions at 2020 traffic levels.”
The academic panel said that its national risk assessment started with the study “Fatal Runway Collisions Over the Next Two Decades,” which was performed under contract with the FAA and was presented to the FAA administrator. It was published in the Air Traffic Control Quarterly in 2000 after a peer review process, and estimated the risk based on technologies and procedures used in the 1990s.
“The critique does not criticize this national-level study or suggest that we misquoted its findings,” stated the panel members.
“We went on to note three major technological innovations that arose in the first decade of the 21st century; AMASS, ASDE-X and runway status lights. We cited FAA’s own safety analyses, which estimated that, taken together, these three technologies would reduce runway collision risk by 88 percent. Again, FAA does not suggest that we misrepresented these studies.”
“We cited recent evidence that suggests that these technologies and changes in procedures have indeed improved aviation safety. Over the last ten years, Category A and B runway incursions have declined by 80 percent at towered U.S. airports,” the panel stated. “We pointed out that the last fatal runway incursion at a towered U.S. airport occurred in March 2000 and that, in the ten years since that time, there has not been a fatal collision in over 500 million landings and takeoffs. FAA does not challenge the accuracy of these statements.”
The panel pointed out that “Taking these factors together, we estimated that, at 2020 traffic levels, fatal runway collisions at towered U.S. airports would occur on average every four years. We applied nothing more than simple arithmetic to the information cited above and we explained that this estimate was, if anything, high.
“Nor does the critique take issue with our estimate of the consequences of a fatal collision on the LAX north airfield.”
The panel noted that “the FAA critique took issue with only one aspect of one of the three components of our baseline risk analysis for LAX-North. Its objections there strike us as unconvincing and often inconsistent with usual FAA techniques for analyzing runway safety. We therefore reaffirm our confidence in our risk calculation.”
Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, whose 11th District includes LAX, told The Argonaut, “I’m absolutely delighted about the academic panel’s response and I’m happy they are who they are.
“They’ve done a fantastic job and said that the north runways are as safe as they can get, and are even safer than the south runways that have been reconfigured.
“I’m very pleased that the academic panel answered the fact that the FAA’s plans are under the guise of expansion, not modernization,” Rosendahl said.
Ian Gregor, FAA communications manager, said, “We’re reviewing the panel’s response and will respond to it when we have completed our analysis.”
Denny Schneider, president of the Alliance for a Regional Solution to Airport Congestion (ARSAC), claimed, “The academic panel stated clearly that the runways are (and will continue to be) safe, and that FAA use of half-truths and distorted statistics will not change that.
“The academic panel also noted that the ‘fixed’ south airfield has a better incursion and safety record than comparable airports, while even less incursions occur on the north complex.
“The academic panel could have gone even further by noting that the FAA’s outright error of citing incursions which were not geometry-related and the safer design of the current north side location of gates, but they are nicer than we are because they have not had to deal with the FAA as long as we who have been working to fix LAX without incurring another expansion,” said Schneider.