December 16, 2005


Expert says Midway plane crash was avoidable (Jon Hilkevitch, December 15, 2005, Baltimore Sun)

The city of Chicago and Southwest Airlines have "carelessly ignored" for years the risks of short runways and insufficient over-run areas at Midway Airport, an expert on transportation disasters said yesterday in a report on last week's fatal accident.

The crash was avoidable, and the outcome would have been much worse if fuel tanks on the plane ruptured and caught fire, said Gunnar Kuepper, chief of operations at Emergency & Disaster Management Inc., a Los Angeles-based company that advises government agencies and private businesses on emergency-planning strategy.

"This was not a surprising risk for anyone in the aviation industry," Kuepper said. "Surely it was a surprise for the people on the street outside Midway Airport who collided with a Boeing 737."

For a fraction of the financial losses that Chicago and Southwest will pay out from the accident, he said, the city and its major airlines at Midway should have invested in safety systems to minimize the damage of a plane skidding off a runway. [...]

The report noted similarities to a 2000 accident in which a Southwest plane overran a runway in Burbank, Calif., in rainy weather and crashed into two cars on a street. After the accident, the Burbank Airport improved its safety areas at the ends of runways by installing pits of soft concrete that crushes under heavy weight of planes to arrest momentum. "Eighty percent of this expense was covered by an FAA grant," Kuepper said.

Terri Gross had Scott McCartney --"who follows the airline industry, [and] writes the weekly column "The Middle Seat" for the Wall Street Journal" -- on Fresh Air yesterday and he said this soft concrete stuff is relatively cheap and very effective.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 16, 2005 3:26 PM

I heard that interview on the way home. He also said that airports almost never install the stuff until they've had an accident or two. Or three. Also that Southwest had have several accidents or close calls in the last few years and were going to be getting a serious looking at by the FAA.

Posted by: Bryan at December 16, 2005 4:15 PM

The pilot sucked up 2000'of a 6500' before touching down. All he needed for a safe landing under those conditions was 5300'. Pilot error. (Admittedly, on a runway with not much margin for error.)

Posted by: ghostcat at December 16, 2005 5:37 PM

As noted in USA Today (from today), Midway's runways are too short to use the crushable concrete - there is only enough room for probably a hundred feet (maximum) of the stuff at either end. Remember, smaller planes (like RJs) sometimes land right at their end of the runway - it wouldn't do at all for a jet to land right on top of the overrun strip.

The article went on to note that the NTSB has already focused on the failure of the thrust reversal system on the engines to work properly, which is a very quick statement from a normally close-mouthed agency. Plus, there was a tailwind of approximately 9 knots (and planes normally land into the wind).

The problem at Midway isn't the airport or the 737 - it was a difficult landing under the stormy conditions, with no margin for error. Enough small things happened that the margin was exceeded, although people on the plane weren't really in danger (as long as there was no fire).

Posted by: jim hamlen at December 16, 2005 6:56 PM

And if the weather weren't bad? It was miserable here that day.

Posted by: Sandy P at December 16, 2005 6:56 PM

The two posts above the look at "margins" are absolutely correct.

The sad thing is that in this ophahfied age, it is only a matter of time until Midway is shut down and a new airport placed in the middle of nowhere (where pols and insiders have already bought up the land).

Posted by: Bruno at December 17, 2005 10:14 AM


Peotone? Doubtful.

Seriously, Chicago would never need a third airport (and could reduce traffic count at Midway) if the FAA would regulate the number of connecting flights American and United have at O'Hare. Something along the lines of 40% of all flights at that infernal airport are connections to another big airport somewhere in the world.

Posted by: Brad S at December 17, 2005 6:14 PM