Is a shorter runway more dangerous?

Overrun incidents, like the one in Guyana last weekend, are on the rise. Should we be alarmed?

Topics: Air Travel, Plane Crashes, Ask the Pilot,

Is a shorter runway more dangerous?Rescue workers inspect a Caribbean Airlines jet after it skidded off the runway at Cheddi Jagan International airport outside Georgetown July 30, 2011. The packed Boeing 737-800 jet carrying 163 people crashed and broke in two on Saturday as it landed in Guyana at night, injuring dozens of passengers but killing no one. REUTERS/Alvo Salomon (GUYANA - Tags: DISASTER TRANSPORT) BEST QUALITY AVAILABLE (Credit: © Str New / Reuters)

Here it is, the turn of another month. It dawns on me — too late — that I let the first of July go by without mentioning that it was the 25th anniversary of my near-death experience over Nantucket Sound. This was the only close call I’ve ever had in an airplane, and it happened in a rented Piper Warrior when I was a 20-year-old private pilot hoping to impress a gothed-out, 17-year-old fashion model named Dorothy Meyer. The tale of that near-miss is my all-time favorite flying story, and every year I make a point of running a link. Here it is again, better late than never.

Onward to more timely things …

Later in the week I’ll be getting to the Air France 447 findings. In particular, I’ll be looking at the media’s garbled interpretation of them. European investigators released their report on July 29, and I’ve received a blizzard of emails from a confused public. Here’s some advice for the time being: Ignore pretty much everything you see or read about this. What they’re telling you about the report isn’t what the report actually says.

In the interim, let’s have a look instead at something that happened over the weekend down in Georgetown, Guyana.

The other morning, a Caribbean Airlines Boeing 737-800 overran the runway at Cheddi Jagan International Airport, sliding to a stop and cracking in half. There were no fatalities, but the jet came perilously close to sliding down a steep embankment.

I’ve flown into Cheddi Jagan. Located in the town of Timehri, it’s an immaculate little airport surrounded by lush rain forest, about an hour’s drive from the capital.

There is no radar at Cheddi Jagan. Controllers rely on position reports from pilots — altitude, distance and bearing from the airport’s VOR station — as a means of sequencing traffic. The main runway, numbered 06/24, is a relatively short strip of just over 7,400 feet. There are steep drop-offs at both ends, which can make the runway appear like a sort of inland tropical aircraft carrier, hovering over a sea of vegetation. The airport is prone to morning fog, and lacks an instrument landing system (ILS) — what we call a “precision approach.” Pilots rely instead on a simpler VOR or GPS procedure with parameters that aren’t as tight. These lack the strict vertical guidance of an ILS, and your decision point is slightly higher, and slightly farther out, than it would be with an ILS.

All of that sounds kind of scary, and these are the aspects that the media, both internationally and in Guyana, have been harping on. Which is at least partly unfair.

Taken together, these facets indeed make the airport challenging and less forgiving than others, but they do not make it unsafe by any stretch. It is unclear if any of these characteristics played an important role in the accident. Operating without radar, Georgetown’s controllers have an excellent reputation for their handling of traffic. As for that non-precision, so long as you’re in the slot, so to speak, touching down from one of these procedures should use up no more runway than landing from an ILS. And no approach, ILS or otherwise, should be continued if things become unstable.

With respect to the short runway, It’s logical to assume that had it been longer, the jet would not have gone barreling off the end. And sure, on some statistical level, a shorter runway is less safe than a longer one. But that is not the same as unsafe, and not every runway can be 15,000 feet long. Some will always be shorter than others, and at 7,400 feet, Timehri’s 06/24 is roughly the same length as those found at LaGuardia, Washington-Reagan, Chicago-Midway and various other high-density airports, from which thousands of flights operate daily without incident. Whether a given strip is long enough to land on is not a matter of guesswork; performance is guaranteed based on weight and surface conditions. At least on paper there is always room enough to come safely to a stop, and that distance includes a buffer. 

I’m reminded of those infernal “world’s most harrowing airports” lists that surface from time to time, under slightly different headlines, bouncing around the Web and needlessly scaring the crap out of travelers. Do not pay attention to these. They are always exaggerated, misleading and otherwise full of nonsense. If an airport were even remotely dangerous, no airline would be operating there.

In other words, there is nothing about the Georgetown airport that said this accident had to happen.

However, there was limited margin for error. Reportedly the flight touched down in heavy rain, in darkness. The possibilities that jump out at me would include a microburst — a form of wind shear associated with thunderstorms — or an unstable, inadvertently long landing on a wet runway in rainy, perhaps windy conditions. Did the crew fly too close to violent weather? Did they come in too high or too fast? Was there a tailwind? Was there a malfunction in the plane’s anti-skid or spoiler systems? Or was it a combination of things? With incidents like this, usually there is more than a single, simple cause.

Runway overrun incidents are on the rise worldwide. Looking through the Ask the Pilot archives, I’ve covered at least half a dozen, including the 2005 Air France near-disaster in Toronto,  and the Southwest accident in Chicago later that same year.  On one hand, this is alarming. On the other hand, global air traffic has doubled over the past 25 years, vastly increasing the average daily number of takeoffs and landings. Taking in all types of mishaps, the global accident rate — fatalities per passenger-miles flown — has fallen sharply. If nothing else, we have clear focus of where the problem is. And better training, more than infrastructure upgrades or new technology, is the key to fixing it. In the majority of cases, human error is the culprit.

Caribbean Airlines, by the way, is the reincarnation of the old BWIA (British West Indies Airways), based out of Port of Spain, Trinidad. BWIA had been in business for more than 60 years before closing its doors in 2006. Caribbean Airlines started up shortly thereafter, employing many of the old BWIA staff (at substantially reduced wages). Earlier this year Caribbean acquired Air Jamaica, which had been around since 1968. Caribbean Airlines 737s now wear an Air Jamaica sticker on the forward fuselage.

Something went wrong at Georgetown, clearly. And had the 737 gone slightly farther, it would have skidded down that embankment and almost certainly caught fire. But it’s worth noting that BWIA/Caribbean/Air Jamaica have never recorded even a single fatality between them, going back over six decades. Not even Qantas can say that.

Still a perfect safety record. Of sorts.

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Do you have questions for Salon’s aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his website and look for answers in a future column.

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