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Federal Report Says Sky Harbor "Must" Improve Runway Safety Area

When a new runway opened at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in 2000, it received the blessing of the Federal Aviation Adminstration.

But a newly released report from another federal agency, the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Transportation, cites that same runway as a potential safety hazard. The report says that Sky Harbor "must improve" the runway's "runway safety area," or RSA.

RSAs are supposed to provide a 1,000-foot buffer around runways -- by law, the areas must be "cleared, drained, and capable of supporting the weight of commercial aircraft." But the runway safety area for the runway in question is only 950 feet -- 50 feet shy of the requirement, confirms airport spokeswoman Alisa Smith.

Smith says there have been no actual problems on the runway. "We have had a perfect record on our safety inspections," she adds. 

The Inspector General's report, which can be accessed online here, looks at the thirty biggest airports in the United States. Eleven of them, including Sky Harbor, were found to need work getting their RSAs up to snuff -- and all eleven face "major challenges" in doing so.  

At Sky Harbor, the "major challenge" can be described in just three words: Salt River bed. Spokeswoman Smith says the city was unable to make its runway safety area the full 1,000 feet because of the riverbed. However, the city is currently working on an environmental assessment so it can add the necessary fifty feet.

"This is a priority for us," she says. "Once we have those environmental assessments, we'll have a better idea of the timetable."

Lest all this sounds very tedious to you, consider this: The Inspector General reports that over the last decade, "75 aircraft have overrun or veered off the nation's runways, resulting in nearly 200 injuries and 12 fatalities." After 14 people were injured when an aircraft overran its runway in New Jersey in 2005, the federal government gave the airports a 2015 deadline to get all runway safety areas up to standards.

So you might not care about any of this now, but next time you're on a plane skidding toward the Salt River, we're sure you'll feel much better knowing you've got an extra 50 feet off solid ground. Until then, we supposed, you'd better just say a little prayer and hold your breath.

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