Runway Incursions

An Associated Press story entitled “LAX ranks at top for dangerous runways” caught my eye today, not because of the headline, but because of the smaller sub-title below it which stated, “Two nearby Southern California airports share distinction”.

Surprise, surprise. Which airport tops the list? John Wayne.

Southern California has long been the nation’s runway incursion epicenter. Among the country’s 25 busiest commercial airports, John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Long Beach Airport and LAX ranked one, two and three in runway incursion rates — measured by incidents per 100,000 flights — since 1999. The three airports also topped the list for the total number of incidents, regardless of size.

For you non-pilots out there, a “runway incursion” occurs whenever an aircraft taxis onto a runway without proper clearance.

I’m not sure why LAX would be on that list. There are no intersecting runways and very little general aviation there. But SNA I can understand. In recent years, lighted hold bars have been installed in the taxiway to help alert pilots that they are about the cross an active runway. Even so, this airport is chock full of pitfalls:

  • airliners must cross a general aviation runway to reach the only runway long enough for them to use
  • airliners often get odd clearances to back taxi on the general aviation runway, or cross to the west side before turning back toward their runway
  • SNA is home to an odd mix of traffic; many aerobatic planes, tailwheels, an abnormally high number of training flights, and a helicopter operation which has rotorcraft refueling on the east side and then taxiing to the west side where they land on top of a building
  • the airport is too small to accomodate the level of traffic it’s now experiencing — chalk this up to the closure of every other airport in Orange County except Fullerton
  • all the taxiways at SNA (except Charlie) are bi-directional, even the small connecting ones like Kilo and Golf
  • the runway layout and prevailing winds result in major wake turbulence concerns
  • there are four runup areas, all in odd places
  • frequency congestion is acute, to say the least

Van Nuys may be the world’s busiest GA airport, but I’ve always felt that it was much less hectic than John Wayne because it has no airline traffic. The controllers at SNA do a masterful job, but there’s only so much you can do with an airport that small and that crowded.

Spokeswomen at Long Beach and John Wayne airports said most runway incursions at their facilities involved small, private planes. LAX, however, mostly serves commercial aircraft, giving it the greatest potential for a catastrophic accident.

Really? All the runway incursions I’ve witnessed at SNA have been caused by airliners and professional pilots. I’d be interested to know if they really are from “small, private airplanes” or whether it’s just easier for airport administrators to tag a large, faceless mass of pilots.

  4 comments for “Runway Incursions

  1. John McGarvey
    November 26, 2005 at 10:38 am

    Very interesting article.

    I fly out of Long Beach (private pilot) and can tell you the runway & taxiway layout is crazy. No wonder AOPA used LGB for the sample airport in the Runway incursion training. When runway incursions occur at LGB, my first guess is that its due to the runways/taxiways. Even though they have LAHSO standard on my runways, there is a heavy concentration of general aviation planes mixing in with the airliners.

    However, as mentioned in the article, I don’t see who the runway layout (all parellel with each other) and the lack of general aviation, can be blamed for the incursions at LAX. If I understand the reasons, LAX has 4 parellel runways – 24R/24L and 25R/25L, and they use 24R (on the most northern end of the complex) and 25L (on the most southern end of the complex) for landings (typically), and the inner two runways for departures. Landing aircraft then have to taxi across the 1/2 or 3/4 point of the departure runway to get to the terminals. I could never understand why the don’t use the outer most runways for departures and in the inner runways for landings? If they did, then the landing aircraft would not have to taxi over any runway to get to the terminals.

  2. SEQU
    November 29, 2005 at 7:39 am


    I think the reason behind the amount of runway incursions at LAX is the fact that landing aircraft have to hold short of active runways for departing aircraft before proceeding to their gates. Many times one has to hold in between the runways because of landing traffic behind you. Sometimes, the aircraft stray into the departing runway causing an incursion.



  3. November 29, 2005 at 1:09 pm

    I used to fly into LGB twice daily as a freight dog, and fly into LAX often now as a regional FO. I’ve witnessed runway incursions take place at both places. At LGB, a C172 was instructed to taxi from Million Air to 25L at D; he missed D and taxied onto 30, with an airplane on short final. At LAX a 757 that’d just landed on 24R & was supposed to hold short 24L went rather slightly over the hold line for 24L & was told to give the tower a call. I think he was just a little late on the brakes. Two very different kinds of incursions that I think are fairly representative of those two airports.

  4. Ron
    November 29, 2005 at 10:01 pm

    Sam, thanks for your perspective on the runway incursions at these two airports. LGB can definitely be a confusing place, especially for the unprepared pilot.

    You also bring up a good point, which is that not all runway incursions are created equal. Some incursions create a definite collision hazard. Others, like your “slightly over the hold line” example, present no danger to persons or property.

    I enjoy your site, by the way.

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