The terrible accident involving a Brazilian TAM airlines jet manufactured by Airbus should not be considered an isolated incident. It is all too likely to be repeated at a major airport near you. There are many other airports located in densely populated regions around the world. There are also many airports that provide only a minimum-length runway for landing commercial aircraft in poor weather conditions. Finally, there are many airports that pose a threat to major population centers, even if their runways are of sufficient length.
National airport, located in the heart of the Washington, DC metropolitan area, is just one example. Members of U.S. Congress and certain airlines have insisted this airport remain open despite being located immediately adjacent to Washington, Crystal City, and Alexandria, Virginia. That runway is considered just long enough for jet aircraft such as the 737. These jets must carefully approach over the Potomac River, land precisely, or else end up in the river or in downtown Crystal City. Weather, mechanical issues, and pilot error can quickly devour any margin for error that may exist at such airports.
Midway Airport in Chicago, LAX (displayed below), San Francisco Airport, Norfolk Airport, New York's LaGuardia, Boston's Logan International, Miami International, and Fort Lauderdale Airport are just a few examples of U.S. airports situated in or very close to densely populated areas. Midway and LaGuardia have notorious safety records blamed on short runways but they still remain in daily use like all the others.
Military airports also pose a threat to growing populations. Oceana Naval Air Station, located in the city of Virginia Beach, Virginia, brings daily overflights of military aircraft with the loud noise and ever-present chance of an accident in a densely populated city.
Around the world there are several major airports with poor safety records but Quito, Ecuador may have the worst. The capital of Ecuador operates an airport carved out of a mountain top. It has seen more than the usual share of deadly missed approaches. There have been four fatal accidents there in the past 15 years.
Honolulu and Taiwan airports, like those on many islands, have just enough runway length to permit a safe jumbo jet landing in a rainstorm, but little room for error. Hong Kong closed dangerous Kai Tak after completing Chek Lap Kok Airport on another island. Tokyo also filled in a harbor in order to build the entirely new Narita Airport. These new airports are considered safer, partially because a plane that overshoots the end of their runways would likely end up in the water rather than in the side of a large building.
Pilot errors, poor weather conditions, and aircraft congestion multiply the chances for fatal accidents. Aviation officials cannot continue to overlook glaring issues related to airport location, just because most airline pilots are skilled professionals with years of experience. The excellent maintenance procedures practiced by most airlines should not be used as an excuse to overlook airports that are bumping up against the limits of safety in crowded population centers.
Rapidly increasing populations drive two issues related to airport safety. As regional populations swell, airlines respond with more and more flights to and from those cities. Airport development can barely keep pace with the demands for more daily flights. Furthermore, expanding suburban housing subdivisions often encroach on airports once considered to be located a safe distance from major population centers.
Washington's Dulles airport used to be located adjacent to the horse farms of Virginia's landed gentry. Today, nearby Loudoun County Virginia is densely populated bedroom community. Every new resident to Loudoun County soon learns that jets approaching Dulles Airport fly just above their children in playgrounds and backyards. As long as every approaching 747 stays aloft long enough to reach the runway, everyone feels more or less safe. One accident would likely bring plummeting home prices and and an outcry from impacted citizens. That happened in Virginia Beach just a few years ago when a Navy jet crashed near Oceana. Oceana Naval Air Station remains open and housing development close to the runways continues.
City and national government officials will refuse to properly address the issues presented by urban airports as long as the airport taxes keep rolling in to city coffers. They will all consider the risks posed by these airports "acceptable" until a tragic accident occurs such as what happened at Congonhas in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Even then city officials in other cities will quickly point to other possible issues long before they consider closing a dangerous cash cow located within their population centers.
Images from TAM Flight 3054
Airport Safety News