Investigation: Runway safety at JFK Airport

February 12, 2010 6:59:15 AM PST
Government inspections at New York's largest airport reveal serious safety problems. These runway hazards at JFK were uncovered by an Eyewitness News 4-month investigation.

The FAA had earlier warned the Port Authority of possible enforcement action if safety deficiencies at JFK did not improve.

Yet, our investigation has found problems with broken runway lights, poor signage, and inadequate training getting worse.

It's so bad, that JFK ranks at the top for runway safety hazards.

Airport lights reflect a beautiful mosaic, but they are also critical to safety.

In an analysis of documents, interviews, and undercover video, a portrait emerges of New York's largest airport, J-F-K struggling to keep up with maintenance.

A video shows a major taxiway where the green centerline lights suddenly end, leaving a quarter-mile stretch of darkness:

"Those lights are there to guide the aircraft from point A to Point B," explained former JFK controller, Barrett Byrnes.

The recently retired JFK air traffic controller says poor maintenance of airport lights and signs has been a problem for awhile and often leads to pilot confusion.

"You would have 30-40 a night, pilots turning off stopping on exit or runway exit just stopping, because taxiway lights would end, so they'd be confused," said Byrnes.

A look at JFK'S latest annual FAA inspection shows an unusually high number of safety deficiencies, 38 to be exact from taxiway and runway lights that "Need to be repaired", to runway markings painted in the wrong direction, to broken lenses, and lights that were OTS: out of service.

"That to me is a real concern," said pilot and aviation attorney, Justin Green.

" To have all these violations, all these problems with how the runways and taxiways are marked is a little surprising to me," said Green.

For perspective, we obtained the latest FAA inspection report for O'Hare airport in Chicago.

Although much larger than Kennedy, it had only 8 deficiencies, compared to Kennedy's 38.

Perhaps most troubling in 2008, the F-A-A put the Port Authority on notice saying if problems are not corrected "Enforcement action may be necessary". Yet in the next inspection, deficiencies shot up by 60% and the FAA did nothing.

"If your just going to pencil whip stuff and say you have errors but never really correct them, then you really have safety issues," said Barrett.

Pilots getting lost on the runway can lead to deadly accidents.

In 2006, at a Kentucky airport, 47 passengers were killed when a Delta commuter flight tried to take off on an unlit runway .

In 2005 at JFK, a pilot of a jumbo jet filled with passengers got lost in fog and mistakenly crossed a runway as a cargo plane was lifting off. They missed colliding by just a few feet, the fear obvious in the pilot's voice.

Pilot: "He's taking off."

Controller: "Are you clear?"

Pilot: "We are clear now of runway, we crossed the runway."

Controller: "You crossed the runway?"

Pilot: "We crossed the runway by mistake."

On any night, let alone a foggy one, a stretch of taxiway unlit and dark can add an element of danger at an already busy and challenging airport like JFK.

"Any confusion out on the runway or taxiway can ultimately lead to an accident," said Byrnes.

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