Ah, the old “LaGuardia 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 of 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. LaGuardia’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 into 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. Many airports 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 ever visiting LaGuardia 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 the fact that, just a few seconds later, those huge aircraft are landing on a runway only 7,546 feet long.
LaGuardia’s largest aircraft these days are really medium-sized aircraft; Boeing 737s, Airbus A320s, and 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 LaGuardia 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 LaGuardia because of the runways’ length? Zero.
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 sections. One of those sections broke where two passengers were seated, taking their lives.
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 classified by International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) definition as an “incident” due to it having had no fatalities, only a few minor injuries during evacuation, and relatively minor aircraft damage. This was also at a time before the “arrestor bed” was installed at the end of the runway, but more on that later.
More recently, in October of 2016, then-Vice Presidential candidate Mike Pence’s campaign aircraft (an Eastern Airlines Boeing 737) slightly overran runway 22 after landing in a rear quartering tailwind, then scraping the corner of an arrestor bed at the end of its rollout. Though the official cause has not been determined, the aircraft remained upright with relatively minimal damage, and no passengers were injured, so this is also likely not to be classified as an accident either.
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 news organizations make specific references 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. The runway length was entirely irrelevant.
So, yes, it’s a shorter runway, but it is historically 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 must have sufficient distance to abort the takeoff and stop in the remaining distance or be able to safely 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 LaGuardia, not only is your aircraft able to come to a halt within the 7,000-foot runway, but it can certainly 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 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 present precipitation.
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, EMAS is a bed of brittle cement built at the end of runways, granting an aircraft the ability to be safely slowed and stopped within it, preventing dangerous overruns.
LaGuardia has had EMAS beds at the departure ends of runway 13 and runway 22 for over a decade and now has them installed at the ends of all runways. Though not as common as one may hope, EMAS technology has been applied at many airports around the country and has safely captured at least ten overrun aircraft since 1999. Four of the nine incidents took place in New York. Where, you ask? While only one was at LaGuardia, the other three were at a “big runway” airport known as John F. Kennedy just down the road.
Several decades ago, in an effort to promote more distant domestic flying at JFK Airport, a “perimeter rule” was put into place at LaGuardia, 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.
There is talk every few years of this rule being lifted, which would create the opportunity for LaGuardia to begin seeing transcontinental flights all the way across the country. People hearing this tend to respond 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 utilize the Airbus A320/321 or Boeing 737. All of these types already serve LaGuardia daily.
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? Not at all, making safety a non-issue if the Perimeter Rule were ever abolished.
Two Affected Aircraft Types
Though no flight would legally operate unless within those specified limits, two aircraft types serve LGA that is 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 of 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, as that pre-flight math is very black and white.
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 and 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 aircraft’s tail 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 effect 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 approach 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 equal 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).
As Safe As Anywhere Else
In conclusion, if there were truly a safety issue with La Guardia’s runway length, further changes would be made, and you 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 a place that keep you so safe that your biggest concern is a lack of power outlets on the narrow, cramped Central Terminal Building concourses.
What a extremely informative article about the runway operations and aircraft history at LGA. I didn’t realize the heavy demands of the MD-80’s! They are such a common sight that I took it for granted that they had no issues! Now I know otherwise! Looking forward to reading more articles from Phil!
Go back a little further and you’ll see many more accidents involving short LaGuardia be runways.
They need to expand into Rikers Island!!!!