Southwest jet's landing-gear collapse: third major runway accident this month

The front landing gear of a Southwest flight collapsed upon landing at New York's LaGuardia airport Monday. This follows runway accidents in San Francisco and London. A government agency says the FAA needs to keep better data on runway accidents.

John Minchillo/AP
A southwest airlines plane rests on the tarmac after what officials say was a nose gear collapse during a landing at LaGuardia Airport on Monday in New York. The Federal Aviation Administration says the plane landed safely.

New York City’s LaGuardia Airport fully reopened Tuesday, but flight delays linger a day after the collapse of the landing gear of a Southwest Airlines plane temporarily closed the airport.

Southwest Airlines Flight 345 skidded nose-first into the grass after the landing gear collapsed immediately after the plane touched down on the runway, airport authorities said. Six passengers were taken to a hospital with minor injuries.

Passengers recorded pictures of the plane perched forward in the grass with its emergency escape slides activated.

“I heard some people gasp and scream. I looked over and saw sparks flying at the front of the plane," Bobby Abtahi, an attorney who was waiting in the terminal for a flight to Dallas at the time, told the Associated Press.

Thomas Bosco, acting director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees the airport, said there was no advance warning of any problems before the landing.

The incident, while limited in its severity, is the third high-profile commercial airline accident in the past month. On July 6, a Boeing 777 flown by Asiana Airlines crashed upon landing at San Francisco Airport, killing three. On July 12, an empty 787 Dreamliner owned by Ethiopian Airlines plane caught on fire on the runway at London’s Heathrow airport.

While the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the two American accidents and conclusions aren’t expected for several months, all three incidents fall into one of the areas a federal agency identified this spring as needing further study. 

In April, the Government Accountability Office issued a report that identified runway and ramp safety as a key area where the FAA should improve its data collection and analysis to draw better safety lessons.

“Additional information about surface incidents could help improve safety in the airport terminal area,” the report stated. "The report noted that data collection is currently limited to certain types of incidents, in particular cases where there is the incorrect presence of an aircraft, vehicle, or person on a runway, but does not include other situations, such as runway overruns.

“The success of federal oversight of the US aviation industry depends in large part on the strength of the FAA’s data – which can only be as strong as the agency’s reporting requirements,” writes Sean Moloney on RegBlog, a website affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania's Program on Regulation. “[The report] argues that the FAA needs to implement new data-collection policies to identify possible trends and causal relationships in several areas, including runway and ramp safety, airborne operational errors, and pilot training.”

The GAO report notes that the US airspace system has been highly successful in recent years, with more than 80,000 flights per day and, until July, no fatal commercial aviation accidents in more than four years.

Industry advocates point to such figures as they urge travelers to avoid fear of flying.

“The reality is there is so little that goes wrong with the system, unless we started having one of these on a regular basis, this really isn’t something anybody should be worrying about,” John Nance, a former Boeing 737 pilot who now runs a consulting firm, told Bloomberg News.

The GAO stated in its report that it had “previously recommended that FAA addresses several data quality weaknesses. FAA concurred with most of these recommendations and has taken steps toward addressing some.” 

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