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Airport Runway Defects and Their Role in Aviation Accidents

Flying is one of the safest ways to travel; humans have under a .01% chance of dying in a flight-related accident. However, 48% of those accidents occur during a period that makes up only 4% of the total flight – descent and landing – with 22% occurring during landing alone and another 8% happening during takeoff alone. What makes runway-related accidents more frequent?

Runway Accidents Have Multiple Causes

Multiple issues can cause runway accidents, but many attribute accidents that occur after the plane has touched the ground to hazardous runway conditions. Hazardous conditions can result from a few factors:

  • Poorly designed runways
  • Poor weather conditions
  • Defective runway materials
  • Runway traffic incursions

Each factor presents its own, unique, hazards.

#1. Poorly Designed Runways

Airports worldwide have a variety of runway plans dependent on the surrounding geography. Some are notorious among passengers for being especially terrifying to land on, including a runway in St. Maarten and one in St. Barth’s that end at the beach, and one in Portugal that requires the pilot to squeeze between a rocky face and the ocean itself – and stop in time to avoid tipping into the ocean altogether.

Pilots cite runway design as one of the top reasons certain airports require specially licensed pilots to land there. Airports surrounded by mountains have runways designed out of necessity; however, other airports have attempted to squeeze additional runways into cramped spaces, sometimes requiring pilots to make sharp turns at the end of the runway to avoid obstacles. Other runways located too close to busy city streets increase the likelihood of commercial traffic finding its way onto the runway.

#2. Poor Weather Conditions

While nobody can control the weather, certain airports are notorious for constant closures and delays as a result of poor weather. It makes sense, then, that once the airports reopen, crews must treat runways for ice, snowpack, and other dangerous conditions. However, timely treatment does not always occur.

Weather delays often occur at Reagan National in Washington DC and LaGuardia International in New York City. Both airports also feature poor design – Reagan as a result of the turn necessary to approach, and LaGuardia for its very short runways ending in Flushing Bay. Combine poor design factors with the notoriously icy winter weather in the Northeast, and you have a recipe for disaster.

#3. Defective Runway Materials

When crews pave runways with insufficient concrete for the load carried, or with materials too weak to stand up to weather conditions, cracks form over time. Recently, inspectors have discovered an influx of defective materials used in runway pavement projects. In Michigan, Colorado, and Nebraska, reactions within the concrete mixture itself have resulted in numerous cracks appearing on the surface, making landings dangerous.

Inexperienced runway designers pose another risk. Recently, a designer approved a banned system of joints for a series of Air Force runways. The joints could not withstand heavy planes, resulting in buckled runways littered with debris. Inexperienced construction crews may cut corners while mixing the concrete, resulting in poor runways. All runway defects can fail at any time and cause runway accidents.

#4. Runway Traffic Incursions

Incursions occur any time an aircraft, person, or vehicle is on the runway improperly and results in a crash or near-crash. Incursions result from numerous situations, including air traffic controllers improperly directing pilots onto an active runway, pilot error, or error on the part of another employee improperly on the runway.

Though airports, air traffic controllers, and pilots receive training to avoid incursions, errors involving incursions are on the rise. According to the FAA, incursions have increased in nearly every year since 2011, with over a dozen incidents requiring federal investigation in recent years. New attempts at retraining and additional runway light installations led to the decrease of the most severe incidents.

If a runway accident caused your injuries, you may receive compensation for your injuries if your pilot, air traffic controllers, or the runway pavement company are to blame. Contact an experienced airplane accident attorney at Panish Shea & Boyle, LLP for more information and a free consultation about your case! (877) 800-1700

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