O'Hare runway construction: Flying into a danger zone

In August 2006, 49 of 50 people aboard a Comair plane died during takeoff in Lexington, Ky. Construction was one reason blamed for the pilots going to a shorter runway and crashing into a field.

At the time of the September 2009 FedEx incident at O'Hare, 75 notices alerted O'Hare pilots about changes and hazards on the airfield, the FAA found. The notice that the FedEx pilots missed, describing the shortened runway, was No. 53 on that list.

The list of FAA alerts called NOTAMs, "notices to airmen," does not rank the advisories by importance, giving a nonfunctioning light on an airfield as much priority as a closed section of runway or a temporary flight restriction. At O'Hare, the list of NOTAMs is often longer than many flight plans that crews follow, pilots say.

"NOTAMs have always been a source of pain for pilots at O'Hare," said a pilot who asked not to be identified because he didn't want to be at odds with his airline. "A lot of them contain some really petty stuff. They should be structured to point out important operational issues of the day and filter out the minutiae."

The Boeing 747 captain involved in the July 2007 incident about a plane that was too heavy for the runway shortened for construction expressed frustration in his report to the FAA.

"The root of the problem lies in how we get the NOTAMs," he wrote. "We get a stack of paper — few to dozens of pages, filled with endless numbers of NOTAMs in abbreviated English. Ninety-nine-plus percent of them have no operational significance. … The current way of dealing with NOTAMs in the cockpit is an accident waiting to happen."

In a move to prevent vital alerts from falling through the cracks, the FAA is developing digital alerts for pilots and air traffic controllers. FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt called the new information system "one-stop shopping for airspace system changes."

The digital alerts are delivered directly into computers that graphically map the information and provide verbal guidance, similar to GPS navigation in many passenger vehicles. The digital system also helps pilots by singling out NOTAMs that affect their particular flight, eliminating the need to sort through a long list of alerts, officials said.

Software changes to the new system are under way, said FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory. O'Hare and Midway Airport will start testing the system later this year, she said.

About 10 changes related to construction were made at O'Hare after a construction safety summit that the city and FAA held in April, officials said.

Revisions to air traffic controller training were introduced based on best practices at other construction projects, officials said. The controller involved in the FedEx incident did not mention the shortened runway. He had been taught not to question pilots about the operation of their aircraft, the FAA found.

Chicago aviation officials said O'Hare had been operating in compliance with FAA requirements before the series of construction-related mishaps, but that the safety summit showed more could be done.

"Following those events, the (Chicago Department of Aviation,) along with multiple other key stakeholders, participated in the FAA's simulations process which provided enhanced safety, mitigation strategies and additional processes for future construction activities at the airport," said city aviation spokeswoman Eve Rodriguez.

The construction summit also led to new, shorter signs at the beginning of runways and at intersections frequently used for departure. The available runway distance is now posted on the signs.

In addition, old runway markings have been painted over in black to eliminate confusion and ensure they cannot be seen from the air, officials said.