Airport employees walk runway, pick up debris

By Daniel Silliman


Mike Noelte worries about debris -- no, not "worries," not quite that. It's just something that's always a concern when he lands his Boeing 717.

"Foreign Object Debris" -- screws, plastic bags, stray scraps of sharp metal -- could damage a tire or get sucked into an engine, and could be the difference between another safe landing and a disaster.

"It's more critical for the under-slung engine," said Noelte, a pilot for AirTran Airways. "Still, when you push thrust-reverse, you have to watch you don't give too much power, you don't want to suck up anything."

Foreign object debris -- called "FOD," pronounced to rhyme with "God" -- costs the airline industry about $4 billion annually in damages, said DeAllous Smith, spokesman for Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

The airport's Operations and Maintenance Department keeps the runways clean, sweeping them every day. Once a year, though, for the last seven years, airport employees go on a FOD walk, walking the length of a runway and picking up the litter that could damage landing planes.

Smith said the walk increases "safety and awareness." A sign at the staging center, describes employees as part of the "circle of safety," where everyone does their part. The walk highlights that participation, encouraging all the employees to work together and think about keeping everything clean and safe.

On Wednesday morning, about 60 airport employees -- including pilots, maintenance workers, a police officer, baggage handlers and flight attendants -- were carrying plastic bags down the runway, looking for FOD.

Some of the employees wore hats and shirts commemorating previous years' walks, and as they gathered a few minutes after 6 a.m., the whole affair had the air of a company picnic.

Smith said the annual walk also gave employees, some of whom are aviation enthusiasts, a chance to stand in the middle of a runway, surrounded by the scurry of landing and take-off patterns.

"We have a lot of people who enjoy aviation, and they never get the chance to come out here," Smith said.

At the walk, they get the chance: As the sun rose red through the smog, casting long shadows down the very vacant runway, they moved in a line, walking briskly. They looked at the ridges in the concrete, looking for ball bearings and broken concrete, bits of rubber and loose screws, looking for FOD, for anything that could be dangerous.

Then, they paused, as a jumbo jet touched down, and watched a safe landing.