Features

June 2001 Issue




‘Runway Safety’ and Sanity

The FAA declares war on runway incursions, but where’s the enemy?

Last year the Federal Aviation Administration established a new organization called the Runway Safety Program with the stated goal, “to design and execute a coherent, corporate action plan that will effectively reduce the number of incursions at our nation’s airports.” After looking at the agency’s efforts so far, one can only wonder how long they debated before deciding to make the plan “coherent.”

To guide the RSP, the FAA published a sweeping 34-page thesis titled, “National Blueprint for Runway Safety” (available on the internet at www.faa.gov/runwaysafety). The document lays out the agency’s plan for countering what it has concluded is a growing threat: the animal attraction airplanes apparently have toward anything else on the runway.

Public Enemy No. 1 has become the runway incursion, which the FAA defines as any time “an aircraft, vehicle, or pedestrian transgresses on an active runway while it is being used by another aircraft to land or take off.” To qualify as an incursion, the aircraft, vehicle, person or object on the ground must create a collision hazard or cause a loss of separation with an aircraft that is taking off, intending to take off, landing, or intending to land.

Incursions, the FAA brilliantly deduces, occur because (are you ready?) “pilots, controllers, and vehicle drivers occasionally make mistakes.” So far, the FAA seems to have a tight grasp on reality. We’d guess most people don’t deliberately drive into the paths of moving airplanes.

The FAA thinks the time for action is at hand because air traffic is projected to grow by 26 percent over the next decade. Without new airports and runways to accommodate them, there will probably be more incidents and accidents even if pilots and regulators come up with a way to statistically reduce the probability. According to Arnold Barnett of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (as quoted in the Blueprint), “Runway collisions could cause more U.S. domestic jet deaths over the next two decades than all other causes combined.”

Note the emphasis on jets and consider whether the FAA truly thinks this is a problem for all of aviation or just the crowded airline hubs. More on that in a moment.

In response to this pending doom, the FAA has concluded, “The airport surface environment must not just be made safer, it must be made significantly safer to succeed in reducing the risk to the traveling public.”

What the Feds Can Do
Through a process that rivals the production of sausage, the Runway Safety Program has defined seven categories of initiatives. The RSP calls these categories “thrusts,” perhaps to describe the pelvic motion the FAA usually uses when regulating aviation.

The “thrusts” include Training (what the heck are you gonna do now?), Technology (whistles and bells), Communications (say what?), Procedures (don’t park the fuel truck on the runway), Signs/Markings/Lighting (red means stop, green means go), Data/Analysis/Metrics (we can learn from that!), and Local Solutions (clarity begins at home). How did the RSP come to these categories? The usual way.

First, the agency held nine regional workshops around the country. These were followed by a Human Factors and Runway Safety Symposium, and a Runway Safety National Summit where the RSP collected nearly 1,000 detailed recommendations. Then, the bureaucrats condensed the recommendations to approximately 60 major initiatives. The 60 initiatives were next grouped into the seven “thrusts.”

And so, the National Blueprint for Runway Safety was born. The FAA describes it as a “living document,” which they’ll tweak as they go, based upon comprehensive annual assessments. (We kind of wonder what kind of project they’re likely to build if the blueprint is subject to change. Imagine building a skyscraper: Hmmm, it’s going up crooked, better change the blueprint.)

Despite what in our view is a slow start, one cannot argue with the goal of improving air travel safety, whether it’s in the air, on the ground, or in airport bathrooms where self-flush toilets regularly threaten travelers with anatomical alteration. We won’t even take issue with the cost at the moment, mainly because no one knows how much it will cost to do things that haven’t been determined yet.

In a nutshell, specific goals for fiscal 2001 are to increase awareness and understanding of the issue among the aviation community, create initiatives to reduce risk, train airfield personnel to reduce the potential for error, improve airfield infrastructure (signs, markings, and lighting), improve airfield procedures to reduce the potential for error, invent new technology to support human operators in the execution of their responsibilities, establish a method to measure the effectiveness of the program, and install a mechanism for learning from experience.

That’s a lot of goals for one year, especially for an organization that has occasionally been outmaneuvered by glaciers. Still, given the FAA’s dedication to the issue, we’d think it possible that some meaningful progress could be made in the short term. Read further into the Blueprint, however, and you may have second thoughts about that.

To achieve these goals, the RSP has established 20 initiatives. Here are a few:

* Appoint Regional Runway Safety Program Managers for each FAA region. (Someone’s gotta take the blame, right?)

* Implement training for tower controllers regarding operations which pose a threat of runway incursions (eg. land-and-hold-short). This includes tutoring controllers to recognize when flight crews need help orienting themselves on the airport surface. (“Uh, Commuter 579, you are taxiing up the on-ramp to Interstate 10. Say intentions...”)

* Develop and promote incursion awareness among foreign air carriers.

* Teach air traffic controllers techniques to help optimize their memory capacity.

* Reduce unnecessary, unneeded, redundant, repetitive, echoic, reiterative verbiage from ATC phraseology to enhance communication, dissemination, elucidation, notification, and intercourse. (No comment.)

* Solicit private enterprise for new technologies. (Wanna buy some used traffic lights? Only a million bucks a pop!)

* Enhance remedial training for airmen involved in runway incursions.

* Establish feedback from the aviation community via web site, telephone and fax. (The AD process should give some indication of how that might work.)

The Blueprint explains in painful detail each facet of the Runway Safety Program, right down to the anticipated dates when nauseatingly banal business is anticipated to transpire. Scattered among the report’s voluminous verbiage are a few inspired ideas, such as English language tests to measure the proficiency of foreign pilots, yet how such tests might work in the real world is as clear as mud.

The problem is that even these few bright baubles are slated for interminable discussion at various seminars and symposia to be held at a theater near you. True to form, the FAA has concluded that nothing solves a looming crisis like debates in committee.

Will it Work?
Before you get the impression that we think the FAA is chasing parked cars, we must reiterate that the goal of reducing threats to aircraft landing and taking off is a good one. However, in the scheme of things, one has to wonder why a problem that has caused only a handful of accidents – dramatic as they’ve been – in the past 20 years warrants such emphasis when other, seemingly more substantial problems are blamed on pilot error. Icing and stall/spin come to mind. Put the same kind of resources into forecasting and detecting ice in real-time or designing stall-resistant, spin-proof airplanes and we see real potential for progress.

However, saving the occasional light plane and its occupants from ice does not carry the political impact of preventing two fully loaded airliners from playing chicken, regardless of the relative likelihood of each. So it’s no surprise the FAA is putting its money on the heavy iron.

The FAA is very concerned about runway safety, and the Administrator has established a program designed to significantly reduce the threat of incursions. For all its faults, the Runway Safety Program has some excellent ideas. Unfortunately they’re slated to be discussed until the devil issues ice skates.

If a few of these inspirations manage to escape the red-tape tether of government bureaucracy, we might be a little safer on wheels. Meanwhile, stay alert, brush up on airport signage, communicate succinctly, and don’t hesitate to ask for a progressive taxi if you’re unsure of the milieu.

When you are receiving a progressive taxi, someone is watching and can prevent you from causing a mishap or from becoming the victim of someone else’s error. At the same time, don’t think you’re absolved of your responsibility just because someone in a tower cab tells you to turn right on Echo.

Your friendly ground controller will be happy to try to keep you out of trouble, unless he’s slumped in snooze, a copy of the Blueprint lying open on his lap.


Also With This Article
Click here to view "Runway Incursions."

-by Breeze Geier

Breeze Geier is an active GA pilot who has flown his Lake Amphibian throughout North America.