Runway Incursions

A perfect example of the accident chain

January 1, 1998

Runway incursion accidents involving general aviation aircraft and air carriers are rare, but even one is too many. The most recent occurred in Quincy, Illinois, in 1996, when a departing Beech King Air collided with a landing Beech 1900 (see " Safety Pilot: Collision at Quincy," December 1997 Pilot). A Cessna Conquest II taxied onto the wrong runway in St. Louis and was flattened by a TWA airliner on a night takeoff in 1994. A Beech King Air was not clear of a runway in Atlanta when it was struck by a Boeing 727 in the early 1990s. The granddaddy of all runway incursion accidents was in Tenerife when two loaded Boeing 747s collided in the fog.

The FAA has become very interested in runway incursions recently because GA pilot deviations are on the rise and have been for several years. The most recent numbers show an increase of almost 19 percent from 1995 to 1996; deviations are up almost 30 percent from the prior eight-year average. It would be comforting to report that GA flight operations are also up, but according to the FAA, they have not increased significantly. According to the inspector general of the Department of Transportation, GA is responsible for roughly 71 percent of the aircraft incursions, yet accounts for only 59 percent of the flight operations at towered airports. While GA aircraft are responsible for more runway incursions, air carriers historically have had more incursion-related accidents — generally at night or in fog, when there are fewer GA flight operations. There is clearly a problem.

The FAA formed an industry committee to look into this and make recommendations in early 1998. In my testimony before Congress late last year, it was clear that while the problem has many different facets, we need to work on the GA pilot aspect aggressively. Runway incursions have a variety of sources: pilots, air traffic controllers, airport vehicle drivers, and poor airport layout or signs that are contributing factors — and the responsibility of airport management.

We'll focus on the pilot aspect for now, although there are initiatives being taken in all areas. The largest number of deviations (44 percent) involved private pilots with fewer than 500 hours total time. Pilots with 500 to 2,000 hours racked up the next highest percentage, at 22 percent. It falls off after that, but even pilots with more than 7,000 hours accounted for 10 percent of the incursions. It can happen to anyone at any time because of confusion, ignorance, or inattention. Experienced airline pilots have admitted that their greatest navigation task is not in flight but on the ground.

NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) cataloged more than 200 incidents in the past year. In 80 percent of the cases, a pilot taxied onto a runway without a clearance or failed to hold short of a runway. Let's look at some of the examples of pilot deviations from the FAA's 1997 incursion database.

A Boeing 737 was cleared for takeoff while a Cessna 172 RG was cleared "into position and hold." Instead of taxiing to the end of the runway, as is the expected procedure, the Cessna taxied onto the runway at an intersection in front of the Boeing.

A student pilot landed at a busy international airport and was cleared by ground control to taxi to the ramp. The Cessna 152 taxied back onto the runway where another aircraft had been cleared for takeoff. Fortunately, it passed above the Cessna. The student pilot claimed to have been distracted by other cockpit duties and followed the "wrong yellow taxi line." Upon questioning it was determined that he had adequate knowledge of airport markings and signage but had only one flight into this particular airport. A further review of his logbook showed that the endorsements by his instructor were inadequate. The CFI was scheduled for a reexamination.

A Boeing 737 on short final was forced to execute a go-around when the pilot of a Piper Seneca stopped just short of the active runway after taxiing past the hold line. The pilot became confused because of the close proximity of the runway to the ramp and mistook it for the parallel taxiway depicted on the chart.

The studies do a good job of explaining what happened but are not always clear as to why. In some cases the pilot was confused about his location, did not understand the clearance, or failed to see a runway hold-short line.

Most pilots think that they understand taxi clearances, but there is one real big gotcha that seems to cause major problems. Let's say that you are given a clearance to "Taxi to Runway 22." According to the Aeronautical Information Manual, when ATC clears an aircraft to "taxi to" an assigned takeoff runway, in the absence of holding instructions, that authorizes the aircraft to "cross" all runways that the taxi route intersects, with one big exception. Runway 22 is the assigned takeoff runway, and the FBO, let's say, is on the opposite side of Runway 22 from the parallel taxiway that will take you to the end for departure. Can you cross 22 and taxi up the parallel? An informal Air Safety Foundation survey showed that many pilots said "yes."

The big exception is that the above clearance does not authorize you to taxi onto or to cross the assigned takeoff runway at any point. This situation is obviously creating confusion even though it is outlined in the AIM and in FAR 91.129. From a pilot's perspective we recommend that the rule be changed to require a clearance to cross all runways, period. This will increase the burden on ATC at some busy places, but it will improve understanding, allow better control, and reduce the number of incursions. For now, if you have any question, ask the controller before crossing any runway.

There is no requirement to carry a taxi chart when operating VFR, even at the largest, most complex airports. Not having a chart clearly increases the pilot work load to figure out how to taxi to or from the runway. Instrument pilots have access to taxi charts because they are included as a part of the approach chart. There may soon be a proposed rule that taxi charts will be needed to operate at certain busy or complex airports. If this happens, we'll be discussing with the FAA how to make them available to VFR pilots without buying an IFR chart subscription. In many cases the pilot was unsure of his position or was unable to correlate it with the chart. Some of the charts should be made larger.

Standard taxi routes will become more widespread. This is a ground version of the standard instrument departure where the route is printed for the pilot to follow. It cuts the transmission from "Taxi to Runway Two-Two via Alpha, right turn on Bravo Two, left on Charlie, hold short of Runway Three-Three" to "Taxi to Runway Two-Two via Gold One."

The leading cause of the GA pilot incursions, according to a recent FAA study, was inadequate knowledge or experience with ATC procedures and language. The second most identified problem was inadequate knowledge or experience with the airport. During the congressional hearing, I was asked whether additional regulation was needed in this area. We don't need more regulation, but there is a need for a better application of the existing regs. FAR 61.107 states that private pilots must demonstrate flight proficiency in airport and traffic pattern operations, including operations at controlled airports, radio communications, and collision avoidance precautions. Taxi operations and radio procedures are also spelled out for testing in the Private Pilot Practical Test Standards. I suspect that pilot examiners will be placing more emphasis on this in the coming year.

Runway incursion and the issues surrounding it need to be addressed during initial and recurrent training for two important reasons. There will probably be a higher level of enforcement action directed toward runway incursions. Additionally, in the very unfortunate event of a GA-airline collision where GA is at fault, there could easily be severe restrictions placed on our flight activities. I'll choose the preventive response to both of these, thank you.

If you've not had much experience with ATC, there's nothing like a familiarization flight to a towered airport with an experienced CFI to really learn how to do it. Many private pilots have had minimal experience in large airport operations. It is unreasonable to expect any degree of proficiency at, say, a Baltimore- or Chicago Midway-type of airport when your only exposure was to much smaller towered fields. If you're going to run with the big dogs at a busy towered airport, you have to understand the phraseology and how to ground navigate. There is a profusion of signs and paint markings that are generally logical, but familiarity is essential. Even more important, if there is any confusion, ask for "progressive" taxi instructions rather than trying to fake it. On the positive side, there are few flights more satisfying than going into or out of a moderately busy controlled field and doing it professionally — but it has to be done right.

Flight instructors can expect considerable emphasis on this topic through ASF flight instructor recertification clinics and ASF's national CFI newsletter, Instructor Report. ASF will also be producing a Safety Advisor on operations at towered airports early this year, as well as some other training materials to help new and experienced pilots. Watch the ASF Web site for details.


See also the index of "Safety Pilot" articles, organized by subject. Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.