Peering out the little oval window on the side of the aircraft as it taxied around Logan International Airport in Boston, I often wondered how pilots knew when to cross a taxiway, turn right or left, or move out onto the runway. I studied the markings on the ground, cryptic signs in the grass along the pavement, and the lights that seemed interspersed at random. I always assumed that somebody was looking out for the hundreds of bodies captive in the metal tube with wings as other tubes full of bodies zoomed past or lumbered nearby. I felt most secure when we joined a line waiting for the front spot for takeoff. After all, if everybody else was going this way, it must be ok.
Turns out, I was right to worry. A recent Boston.com entry reports that there have been 117 "runway incursions" at Logan in the last 10 years, 11 so far this year. That means unless we have only .7 of an incursion in the next couple of months, we are ahead of the yearly average. A runway incursion is when a plane turns onto the wrong runway or when there is a near-collision between two planes or a plane and some other service vehicle. Of course, we can take comfort that we are only fourth worst in this regard, behind Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia.
Now they are trying out a new system of red lights imbedded in the tarmac which, through a series of sensors, transponders and radar, light up when it is unsafe for the plane to enter or cross the runway. "It's simple," said Randy Babbitt, an administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration. "Pilots have to stop when they see a red light."
Maybe we won't have that last .7 of an incursion. I'll be looking out my little oval window to help.