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EDITORIAL: Still work to do on O’Hare Airport runway safety

Runway 10R-28L at O'Hare Airport. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

Any time there’s a mishap on an airport runway, safety is in jeopardy.

So it’s no small matter that O’Hare Airport has racked up 62 such mishaps in 2½ years, as a recent Sun-Times investigation found, even if nobody was hurt.

Between fiscal year 2017 and 2018 alone, the number of runway incursions at O’Hare, as they’re called in the aviation world, increased from 22 to 26. In the same time period, the number of runway incursions throughout the Federal Aviation Administration’s Great Lakes region, which includes O’Hare, also increased.

O’Hare’s share of the regional total rose, as well, from 8 percent of all mishaps to 9 percent. Its share of the national total inched up from 1.2 percent to 1.4 percent.

The numbers may be relatively small, but it’s alarming when a Chicago Department of Aviation worker drives his vehicle onto a landing strip, forcing an air traffic controller to abort a jet’s landing. Or when workers who are about to mow the grass on an airfield don’t wait for an “all clear” signal from air traffic controllers. Or when an aircraft takes off before getting clearance, as happened once in 2017 and once in 2018.

No one is saying O’Hare is not safe. On the contrary, O’Hare is quite safe. As the FAA pointed out to us, none of the incursions in 2017 or 2018 qualified as a Category A or B. Those would be the most serious incidents, such as when a collision with an aircraft is “narrowly avoided” or there is a “significant potential” for collision.

That’s reassuring. So is the fact that incursions at O’Hare had begun trending “lower than ever” in the past three years because of “new training policies, infrastructure and technology,” as an aviation department spokesperson wrote in a prepared statement to the Sun-Times.

But every runway incursion, even the most minor, is significant, given the stakes. And the public deserves to know whether any city workers were sanctioned for those violations. The aviation department is silent about that.

Aviation Commissioner Jamie Rhee wouldn’t talk to the Sun-Times about its findings. She should. If O’Hare’s safety record is indeed improving, why keep quiet about it?

When an agency is less than forthcoming with information, even good news looks suspect.

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