For New York City's two airports, there's not much room for improvement when it comes to making runways longer, and therefore safer, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Kennedy Airport is bounded largely on the south and east by Jamaica Bay and its marshlands, on the west by Howard Beach and on the north by the Nassau Expressway and Belt Parkway. LaGuardia Airport is bordered on three sides by the waters of the East River and by Flushing and Bowery bays, and on its south by the Grand Central Parkway.
The hemmed-in airports are on the Department of Transportation's list of 11 airports around the country that are struggling to meet federal requirements that runways be surrounded by safety areas.
The extra space around runways is designed to give planes room to stop in an emergency.
A study by the department's inspector general found that New York City's airports have "inadequate" runways when compared with the ideal safety standard. The study's results were made public last week.
The study was an audit of the FAA's Runway Safety Area program. An RSA is a rectangular area surrounding a runway that is a safety zone for aircraft during landings and takeoffs.
In the past 10 years nationwide, 75 aircraft have careened off runways, causing 12 fatalities and nearly 200 injuries, according to the report.
A 6-year-old boy was killed in December 2006 when a plane left the runway at Midway Airport in Chicago, slammed through a fence and crashed into his family's car in traffic.
In November 2005, Congress mandated that the nation's airports enhance passenger safety with improvements to their runway safety areas by 2015.
Pasquale DiFulco, a spokesman for the Port Authority, which operates both airports, said work to improve runways has been ongoing.
"Our runways are safe," DiFulco said yesterday. "We would not be able to operate our airports had the Federal Aviation Administration not certified these runways."
According to the inspector general's report, there's still work to be done. At Kennedy, runway safety improvements are planned for this year and next during a rehabilitation project, but the airport has two more runways that need improvement, according to the report. No cost estimate was included in the report.
It may take up to seven years to complete the work at Kennedy because of "careful sequencing" so that planes can continue to fly uninterrupted, the report says.
At LaGuardia, work could take eight years and includes extending runway decks over Flushing Bay. The FAA estimates the costs of the improvements at $36.5 million for LaGuardia, the report says. The upgrades are in the design phase.
Some runways at each airport have added safety features that make use of air-filled concrete blocks, which collapse when an airliner's weight is on them at the end of a runway.
The crumbling concrete in these Engineered Material Arresting Systems stops a plane's wheels from rolling, bringing the craft to a rapid stop. The system is described as "flypaper for aircraft," DiFulco said.
Plans call for adding the system to other runways at the two airports, except for those at Kennedy that have what the report called "adequate" land for a safety area.