Runway system cleared for takeoff

Runway system cleared for takeoff

Improvements to the runway alert system have reduced the number of false alarms, FAA's Michael R. Huffman says.

After years of criticism over delays, cost overruns and malfunctions, the Federal Aviation Administration's system to warn air traffic controllers of potential runway accidents finally seems on-track.

FAA is using the Airport Movement Area Safety System at 15 airports and is on schedule to meet its September deadline to have it operational at 33 of the nation's busiest airports, said Michael R. Huffman, FAA's team leader on the AMASS project.

The agency is confident in the system's performance, and some former critics seem swayed by its recent performance as well.

In December, when a Boeing 767 carrying would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid was diverted to Boston's Logan International Airport, AMASS issued an alert for the two F-15 fighters that were closely following the plane as it landed.

System worked

'AMASS did exactly what it is programmed to do,' said Dan Ellenberger, national AMASS representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. The association, which represents 15,000 air traffic controllers and 1,200 FAA engineers, frequently has raised questions about the system's soundness.

In another incident last November, the system sent out an alert when a business jet that landed ahead of an Airbus A300 was supposed to leave the runway but mistakenly remained on it.

'These were clear-cut examples of the system doing its job,' Ellenberger said. 'We stand by this equipment.'
AMASS has been designed to enhance the Airport Surface Detection Equipment Model 3.

The nation's 34 largest airports use ASDE-3, which shows controllers the location of aircraft on the ground. AMASS processes data from ASDE-3 systems and uses visual and sound signals to warn controllers of potential conflicts between arriving aircraft, and aircraft and vehicles on the ground [GCN, July 23, 2001, Page 16].

Improvements to AMASS have reduced the number of false alerts, one of the most common problems in its early use, Huffman said.

Nine systems have issued fewer than four false alerts per year, he said, adding, 'In some places, there are zero false alerts.' Three years ago, AMASS would send about two false alerts per hour.

FAA has spent $120 million on the system, twice its 1993 estimate. The agency has set aside $12.4 million for the system this year and plans to spend $20.7 million next year.

Huffman said the extra money will be used to make enhancements:

  • New software will let air traffic controllers adjust the screen size. Aircraft will be identified by tag data that includes the name of airline, type of plane and arrival time. The software will be tested at the Denver International Airport and deployed at other airports beginning in June.

  • The ability to use radar data from up to 24,000 feet will give controllers a clear picture of the airspace and heavy traffic zones.

  • FAA will upgrade audio amplifiers.

  • There will also be security improvements.

    The agency will spend up to $5 million to install AMASS at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston by mid-2003, Huffman said. Houston is the only one of the nation's 34 largest airports at which AMASS will not be installed by September because it has two ASDE-3 systems to support the unique configuration of the airport's four runways.

    FAA is working on hardware and software modifications that will let AMASS process information from the two ASDE-3 systems simultaneously.
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