May 19, 2015

Over the Edge: How Safe Are La Guardia’s ‘Short’ Runways?

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By: Phil Derner Jr.
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There has been a lot of talk about an article that recently appeared in the New York Times that calls for the closing of La Guardia Airport. Many of the points the writer made were misleading and unsupported. Though many have responded on Twitter and in blogs, the part that bothered me most was early on in the article when the writer said “two runways… are surrounded on three sides by water, making landing difficult and hazardous.”

Ah, the old “La Guardia has short runways and is unsafe” line. It is a reputation the airport has which people have been saying for a long time, and I admit, I understand it. To those unaware with the inner workings of the airline industry, it can seem as though NYC’s “Little Airport That Could” might have a bit of a challenge with their two lengths of pavement that measure 7,000 feet each.

This reputation is unfair, and scary. It creates fear, sways the minds of those buying tickets and upsets their stomachs when taking off or landing at what is honestly a safe airfield that has been kicking butt with two feet since 1939. La Guardia’s runways have been the butt of jokes for a long time. Though the jokes may be hysterical, there is a reason that the safety record, both at LGA and throughout our industry, is as amazing as it is. You, as a passenger, should understand how safe you are when you take to the skies. Let’s look a little deeper at this.

“LaGuardia is my favorite airport in the world, because I like my runways as short as I can get ‘em. And I also enjoy that nice body of water right past the edge of the runway. That’s a nice touch, isn’t it? I think they’re thinking of putting some piranha in there. It’s really the only way we can improve the take off area.”
– Jerry Seinfeld

Battling the Myth

Do most major airports have longer runways? Yes, they do. Does that make shorter ones any less safe? Not at all. There are many airports that have runways of comparable lengths, like the main runway at Washington’s Reagan National, which measures only a smidge longer at 7,169 feet.

Delta's 767-400 is the longest aircraft to ever visit La Guardia Airport.

Delta’s 767-400 is the longest aircraft to ever visit La Guardia Airport.

Aviation geek hotspot, St. Maarten, is an airport that mesmerizes people with photos of massive 747s landing low over Maho Beach. But more impressive than how low they come in is that fact that, just a few seconds later, those huge aircraft are landing on a runway only 7,546 feet long.

La Guardia’s largest aircraft these days are really medium-sized aircraft; Boeing 737s, Airbus A320s, a few Boeing 757s. The biggest jet it sees is the Boeing 767. Though it is no longer scheduled to the airport, the 767 tends to show up as an equipment substitution, usually the day after a storm so that airlines can help recover stranded passengers.

But La Guardia is no stranger to large aircraft. Widebody types like the DC-10 and L-1011 were constant visitors to the airport in the 1980s. In fact, those aircraft were specifically designed with LGA’s runways in mind. How many of them wrecked at La Guardia because of the runways’ length? Zero.

The History

Of course, the airport has had its share of accidents, but only one was affected by the runway’s length (though the runway was not the cause of it). USAir Flight 5050 in 1989 should not have taken off due to a poorly configured aircraft (rudder trim was improperly set). They aborted takeoff when they were beyond a takeoff-commitment speed, and went off the end of runway 31 while trying to stop. A pier kept the aircraft from dropping into the water, but the fuselage of the Boeing 737-400 broke into three pieces, one of which broke where two passengers were seated, taking their lives.

USAir Flight 5050 killed two passengers in 1989.

USAir Flight 5050 killed two passengers in 1989.

In 1996, Continental Flight 795, an MD-82 intending to fly to Denver, aborted takeoff due to issues with its airspeed readings. It rolled beyond the runway, stopping short of the water, slowed by a berm that is specifically intended to assist in slowing overrun aircraft. It was a minor incident with no fatalities, just a few minor injuries that took place during evacuation. This was also at a time before the “arrestor bed” installed at the end of the runway, but more on that later.

Regardless of a history that does not actually point in the direction of sacrificed safety, we still see that frustrating idea getting infused into conversations. After the recent Delta 1086 accident in March, we saw one news organization make a specific reference to the airport’s runway length. This made no sense, because even if LGA’s pavement was 50,000 feet long, that particular Delta flight went off of the side in the first few thousand feet anyway. Runway length was entirely irrelevant.

So, yes, it’s a shorter runway. But it’s safe. What really makes it safe, though? What rules and procedures keep it that way?

Doing the Math: Aircraft Performance

Before you taxi out to the runway, and even before you have left the gate, a dispatcher has done some math on the old abacus. He or she has determined that your aircraft is light enough to depart safely on the runway in use, factoring in variables such as wind direction, wind speed, temperature, air pressure, elevation, obstacles beyond the runway and more. Moreover, this math specifically plans for the event of an engine loss at the most critical time in the departure, to where you will have sufficient distance to abort the takeoff and stop, or continue to climb on one engine.

So not only can your aircraft depart, but it can either still depart safely, or stop safely, even if you lose an engine.

The same math is calculated for landing, and again, it’s done even before you depart. Runway length and weather conditions are considered to ensure that your flight can land within 60% of the runway’s length. So the next time you land at La Guardia, not only is your aircraft able to come to a halt within the 7,000-foot runway, but it is has been made certain that it can come to a full stop within 4,200 feet!

For either takeoff or landing, if an aircraft is too heavy to depart or land, they simply remove weight until it is within legal limits as defined by those conditions. Passengers, bags or cargo get removed until the appropriate weight it achieved for a safe operation. Or, they can wait for conditions to improve, such as wind direction/speed or runway traction due to precipitation.

Under Arrest

One great tool for safety in the event of runway overrun is something called EMAS (Engineered Materials Arrestor System). For airports that choose to install it, they are a bed of brittle cement built at the end of runways that grants an aircraft the ability to be safely slowed and stopped within it, preventing dangerous overrun.

The EMAS bed at the end of LGA's runway 13.

The EMAS bed at the end of LGA’s runway 13.

La Guardia has had EMAS beds at the departure ends of runway 13 and runway 22 for about a decade. They are currently extending the runway piers at the opposite ends (runways 31 and 4) as well, meaning all of the airports’ runways will have them in place by year’s end. This means that an aircraft going off the end of the runway, into the water or onto the Grand Central Parkway, is virtually impossible.

Though not installed everywhere, EMAS technology has been applied for a while at many airports around the country, and has safely captured 9 overrun aircraft since 1999. Three of the nine incidents took place in New York. Where, you ask? None were at La Guardia, but all three were at the “big runway” airport known at John F. Kennedy.

Perimeter Rule

Several decades ago, in an effort to promote more distant domestic flying at JFK Airport, a “perimeter rule” was put into place at La Guardia, limiting scheduled flights to a distance of 1,500 miles. Exemptions apply to flights to and from Denver (which was grandfathered in), as well as flights on Saturdays, since it is the slowest day of the week at LGA.

tooshort_$643546There has been talk lately, as there is every few years, of this rule being lifted, which would create the opportunity for La Guardia to begin seeing transcontinental flights all the way across the country. Immediately, people were responding with great concern about the bigger, louder jets that this would bring, and the unsafe, short runways that they’d be operating on.

First is the misconception that flights across the country would be operated by larger aircraft. If you look at JFK’s transcontinental flights to the West Coast, you’ll see that the airlines that operate those routes are utilizing either the Airbus A320/321 or 757. All of those types already serve La Guardia on a daily basis.

Would flights across the country on those same aircraft types be heavier than other routes they serve? Definitely. Would they be able or allowed to depart if they didn’t meet the criteria previously discussed for takeoff and landing performance? Nope.

So, there’s no safety threat from lifting the perimeter rule. What that will do to various markets, or if airlines would even want to expand their reach at the airport before LGA’s Central Terminal is renovated…that discussion is for another article.

Two Affected Aircraft Types

Though no flight would legally operate unless within those specified limits, there are two aircraft types that serve LGA that are more strained by the runway length than others, and one may surprise you.

The McDonnell Douglas MD-80 is a powerful aircraft, and a workhorse for several airlines. Though reliable and safe, the low-bypass engines respond slower to input than other aircraft types with larger engines. This means that it takes longer for the aircraft to build speed when rolling down the runway, demanding a longer takeoff distance. This is exacerbated on hot summer days when the air is thinner, requiring more speed to develop lift over the wings.

Airlines that operate this type into LGA encounter a difficult time on those dog day afternoons, and they usually deal with it by removing passengers to bring the aircraft’s weight down. A passenger headache? Perhaps. A safety issue? No. It’s actually an example of safety measures working to keep you safe.

The built-in stairs, seen here, are still an option on the newer 737 models.

The built-in stairs, seen here, are still an option on the newer 737 models.

The other aircraft that sometimes needs special consideration at LGA is a more modern type; the Boeing 737-800/900. The reason goes back to the late 1960s when the first, much shorter, -100/200 versions were birthed. You’ll notice that the 737 is a “low rider,” with its fuselage very low to the ground. This is because many airports that the aircraft served at that time did not have jet-bridges, and needed to board passengers walking up to the aircraft. Like a few models back then (such as the Boeing 727, Douglas DC-9), the early 737s offered built-in stairs that appeared from underneath the forward door, making boarding and deplaning simple for any airport.

The problem came years later, as newer versions of the 737 offered a lengthened fuselage. With the main landing gear still residing in the same place, the tail of the aircraft came very low to the ground when raising the nose on landing, risking a tail strike.

This resulted in the aircraft needing to keep the nose lower than it might otherwise aerodynamically prefer while on approach. This smaller angle of attack creates a faster approach speed, which can sometimes be around 15 knots faster than most other jets. The affect on runway length comes into play because the higher speed means it needs more stopping distance. But again, the math is done in advance. If it can’t stop within 60% of the strip, it won’t be allowed to take off to begin with.

Side Fact: The increased approach speed is one reason that the 737-900 and 737 MAX 9 is not a comparable replacement for the more-capable 757-200 at smaller-to-medium sized airports. Even if the newer types could match the 757’s range and seating capacity (which it doesn’t), the increased approach speed also makes the 737 inferior in terms of stopping power. This is because the 757 has two rows of wheels on its landing gear compared to the 737’s single set of wheels. More wheels equals more brakes, so that “double bogey” means that the 757 has twice the brakes of the 737. This doesn’t mean the 737-900 or MAX 9 are bad, or not safe, but it shows how incredibly capable the 757 is, and that there is still no true replacement for it (not from Airbus either).

Safe As Anywhere Else

At the end of the day, if there was truly a safety issue with La Guardia’s runway length, further changes would be made and you simply wouldn’t be able to fly in and out of there until those modifications were in place. Say what you want about La Guardia from a passenger experience perspective, but there are way too many professionals working tirelessly, and too many layers of safety in place that keep you so safe that your biggest concern is a lack of power outlets on the narrow, cramped Central Terminal Building concourses.

Phil Derner founded NYCAviation in 2003. A lifetime aviation enthusiast that grew up across the water from La Guardia Airport, Phil has airline experience as a Loadmaster, Operations Controller and Flight Dispatcher. He currently runs NYCAviation and performs duties as an aviation expert for the media. You can reach him by email or follow him on Twitter.

  • Dennis Harper

    Thanks for the facts about LGA. Too bad few will be swayed from thinking it’s an unsafe airport. The picture is a very good visual way of demonstrating how the airport is seen as risky. 99.9% of people asked would say someone needs to be fired, the pilots, controllers, someone anyone.
    The fact is the picture was taken with long telephoto lens which not only makes it look like the airplanes are at risk but the buildings look too close to the airport. Never mind the landing aircraft will turn off using only half the distance to the jet departing on the crossing (runway 4).
    I’d say few would guess the buildings on the left are a full 4 miles away on 125th St. in Harlem. And if you tell them the response will be LGA is obviously too close to the city!

  • Goytá F. Villela Jr.

    Like New York City, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, also has two airports: a large international one (Galeão Intl., GIG) and a much smaller, but conveniently located one: Santos Dumont Airport (SDU), perhaps the only major airport in the world that offers the luxury of being not just “near”, but IN downtown – you cross the street in front of the terminal and you are already in the city’s central business district. (The breathtaking view of Guanabara Bay and Sugarloaf Mountain is another exclusive luxury.) Those complaining of LGA’s “short” runways will be shocked to learn that the longer of SDU’s two parallel 02/20 runways is only 1323 meters (4341 feet) long – almost 2700′ shorter than LGA’s. It also has water on both ends of the runways; when taking off southbound, pilots must avoid Sugarloaf Mountain just about a mile away, and when taking off northbound, it’s the extra-long and tall Rio-Niterói bridge across the bay that must be cleared, less than a mile away.

    SDU has even stricter distance limitations than LGA. The longest nonstop flights are to Brasília, the national capital city, about 580 miles away, but 90% of the airport’s traffic is to and from São Paulo, the country’s largest city and economic capital, a mere 230 miles away. The Rio-São Paulo route is one of the world’s busiest, with about 18 flights per HOUR from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and over 9 million passengers a year.

    You’d think that with such short runways, those flights could not be operated with anything larger than an ATR-42 or a Dash 8 Q400. Wrong. They are operated with Airbus A318s (Avianca Brazil) and A319s (TAM Airlines), and with Boeing 737-700s and even 180-seat 737-800s (albeit, in this case, a special “Short Field Performance” version) by Gol Airlines. Nonetheless, the safety record is stellar, with nothing more serious than a couple of runway side excursions (which, like the Delta case at LGA, didn’t depend on runway length) with no serious injuries or fatalities. There were a few cases of runway overruns with planes falling on the water, but they were all decades ago and with small turboprops. Perfect record for the “big” jets. And don’t get me started on London City Airport (LCY) in England, which has even shorter runways than SDU.

    So, when they complain about how LGA has “short” and “unsafe” runways, please forgive me if I lose my patience…