When an Airport is Your Neighbor

On the morning of Wednesday, February 2, 2005, a corporate aircraft ran off the runway at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey while it was attempting to take off. The initial reports indicated that the aircraft, a Challenger 600, had 12 passengers and a crew of two. The aircraft reportedly was at take-off speed but still on the ground when it ran out of runway, crashed through a fence, crossed a normally busy highway and came to rest with its nose nestled inside of a clothing warehouse. It appears that there were no fatalities on the ground or in the aircraft despite the terror ride that took two automobiles out of service, not to mention the aircraft itself, which burned vigorously in its resting place.

It is much too soon to say why the plane failed to leave the ground. There are many possibilities that have not been ruled out, such as ice on the wings, trouble with the take-off settings, engine failure, or pilot error, to name some of those already in the speculation stage. Suffice it to say that a passenger plane of any size going out of control in the air or on the ground presents serious safety issues for the public.

With so many airports occupying space in such close proximity to heavily populated areas, the foreseeable risk of an airliner accident in any community warrants serious consideration of what can be done to increase aviation safety and control the damage caused by such events. At the same time, it must be emphasized that aviation safety overall still has a record worthy of emulation by any other public transportation form, and therefore whatever steps are proposed to make its safety record even better should be considered with that record in mind.

America’s residential and commercial communities are home to commercial aviation facilities and general aviation airports, the former serving the general public and the latter private aircraft. We are all familiar with the nation’s system of commercial airports and the efforts that have been made to secure them from acts of terrorism. Because they support much of the nation’s commercial activity and are open to the general public, they have received intense attention from the federal government, which oversees and regulates aviation. Issues regarding suitability and fitness to carry passengers, qualifications of pilots, certification of the aircraft themselves, control of passengers and cargo, and standards for maintenance are all governed by federal regulations under the watchful eye of the FAA. When an accident occurs, it is the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) which investigates and issues findings as to the cause. We will ultimately be informed by the federal government through the NTSB of the cause of this disaster.

While many of the same rules apply to corporate aircraft and, to a lesser degree, small private airplanes, the facilities that house the aircraft and the manner in which those facilities are operated is more loosely controlled. It depends to a greater extent on self-policing by owners and operators of the aircraft and the airport facility from which the crafts flies. How well some of these general aviation facilities are prepared to fight fires, de-ice wings, and control access to aircraft is sometimes dependent upon the aircraft owners and operators, whose voluntary compliance with acceptable standards is necessary. Security at these airports, for example, is not a function of the federal Transportation Security Administration, which currently provides that service for commercial airports.

Good Fences, Good Neighbors
With that in mind, Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall,” in which he wonders if “good fences make good neighbors,” comes to mind. This morning, a fence failed to keep a general aviation airport out of its neighbor’s backyard. Needless to say, no ordinary fence could be expected to stop a run-away jet from breaking loose under the circumstances of today’s accident. The fence in question was more than likely a symbol of the end of the runway, and a barrier to keep the neighbors out rather than to keep aircraft in. Perhaps a better fence could have prevented some of the injuries and damages sustained.

Today’s events serve to remind us of the unique nature of air travel, which is not confined to rails or roads but is unrestrained by natural or man-made barriers, and the responsibility that comes with such access. Not too long ago, a military aircraft unintentionally strafed an empty New Jersey public school; other military aircraft have crashed into residential communities. Commercial airliners have gone down over populated areas as well bringing property damage, personal injury, and death to people both in the air and on the ground. Cargo planes and private planes have added to the loss of life and damage to neighbors on the ground in crashes and when wheels, sewage, and other debris come raining down on communities over which they fly.

Perhaps some of these events are unavoidable given the number of flights and the service they provide to every corner of the country. Inevitably, accidents will happen. But because these events are foreseeable, there is a duty to take reasonable care to prevent the harm they cause. That duty is shared by both the aviation industry and government which regulates it.

In the years ahead, as more aircraft serve more people in more densely populated parts of the country, it can be expected that these new services will bring new disasters to more neighbors unless we build more real or virtual fences to separate the rapidly-growing aviation industry from its neighbors on the ground. These new fences will undoubtedly be the product of advances in technology that can offer better control of aircraft in flight and on the ground, and provide better ways to keep aircraft at peak levels of maintenance and in the hands of skilled pilots and ground controllers. We need to constantly look at airport volume, which can make air traffic control that much more difficult; hours of operation, which can destroy the neighbors’ quality of life; aircraft size, which contributes to runway expansion, noise. and neighborhood over-crowding; and other management issues that impact on the entire community.

The continued growth and development of American aviation is in the best interests of society, and recognition must be made of the fact that much of it is likely to occur among private-use customers. We must therefore assist both the commercial and general aviation sectors in their efforts to develop harmony between the needs of industry and that of the general public. We must remember that “good fences make good neighbors” provides one of the guidelines.

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