Crossing the Line

Tough fixes for a growing problem

October 1, 2000

With new gizmos to continually draw pilots' eyes into the cockpit, safety is jeopardized every time the rubber meets the tarmac. A look at recent newspaper stories about runway incursions would have you believe that taxiing in two dimensions at the big airports has become more complex than flying in three.

Chicago. La Guardia. The Canary Islands.

Blame for the increasing problem has been spread across the airport scene. Overworked air traffic controllers, confused pilots, agitated passengers, outdated systems, and overdue federal high-tech projects are pushing the limits of airports that were designed half a century ago.

But for the average general aviation pilot, there's another problem. A gap exists between the piston and jet crowds. What is regarded as a solution for one may be out of the question for the other. Yet within this gulf, new ideas are surfacing to remove the danger from where aircraft have become, at least seemingly, more vulnerable—on the ground.

Silver BBs

After a series of meetings throughout the country, FAA Administrator Jane Garvey in June called a special summit in Washington, D.C., to bring together runway safety experts, pilots, controllers, and others. It was the Olympics of runway incursion prevention, where the athletes suited up, took the spotlight, then returned to quiet offices in relative obscurity to begin the grunt work for the next big competition of ideas.

A key concept that hung heavy at the meeting: There is no silver bullet to solve the problem, rather a series of silver BBs. Each BB must be designed to attack the core of the runway incursion problem that is rooted in such human factors as communication problems and disorientation. The solutions also have to overcome the numerous misconceptions surrounding the debate and questions about the actual depth of the problem, since data weren't required to be kept on all incursions until recently.

Last year, as many as 600,000 pilots made about 68 million takeoffs and landings, supervised by 7,000 air traffic controllers at more than 450 airports. Plus, there were several hundred thousand people driving vehicles at airports. This has contributed to a 70-percent increase in runway incursions since 1993. There were slightly more than 300 runway incursions in 1999. It seems like a lot, but that works out to one incursion per 225,000 operations.

And the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's own analysis revealed that experience isn't necessarily the cause: Private pilots and ATPs share almost equal blame (30 percent and 33 percent, respectively). Pilots with fewer than 300 hours were blamed for 22 percent of the problem, while highly experienced pilots with more than 10,000 hours caused 18 percent of the incursions.

The problem is big at complex airports with a lot of operations, but in some cases, the number of incursions aren't proportional to traffic density, as FAA analysis has shown. Last year Theodore Francis Green State Airport in Providence, Rhode Island, and Chicago O'Hare International each had five runway incursions, despite the fact that Chicago has seven runways as opposed to Providence's three; seven runway intersections compared to two; 115 runway access points vs. 30; and a startling 901,761 airport operations, overshadowing Providence's 156,929.

Most wanted

The FAA defines a runway incursion as anything that creates a collision hazard between an aircraft and another aircraft or a vehicle. A step below incursions are transgressions that involve regulation violations but no collision danger or loss of separation. An airport truck crossing a runway without permission from the control tower, for example, would be an incident if no aircraft were present, but an incursion if an aircraft was less than one mile from landing.

Runway incursions have long been on the NTSB's "most wanted list," and the FAA made the issue its top priority. John Mayrhofer was put in charge of the FAA's Runway Safety Program, and there was a dedicated budget of $3.3 million for improving safety.

AOPA, along with a number of other groups, has been part of the process all along. When the FAA gathered its Runway Incursion Team, AOPA President Phil Boyer was the only aviation industry representative sitting alongside Garvey and her key department heads.

Shortly before the summit in Washington, the NTSB made a pivotal recommendation, which AOPA supported, that pilots stop at every runway intersection and get permission from ground control to cross. But controllers fear that doing so would only create more radio traffic and increase their workload. The FAA has not yet taken action.

Later in the summer the FAA announced 10 initiatives that it says will be implemented immediately. The BBs were selected from among some 800 items by a joint industry/FAA working group (cochaired by Dennis Roberts, AOPA vice president and executive director of government and technical affairs) as having the highest potential to reduce runway incursions quickly. The initiatives—similar to ideas mentioned two years ago by a task force cochaired by ASF Executive Director Bruce Landsberg—ranged from memory-enhancement training for controllers to education for foreign pilots. There will be more rigorous pilot testing with more questions on surface operations. And on biennial flight reviews and checkrides for pilot certificates, there will be more evaluations of pilot knowledge of airport signs, lighting, and markings.

Pride and punishment

Earlier this year pilot John D. Ruley found out that a cooperative attitude can go a long way after he got busted for an incursion because his nosewheel was about a foot beyond a hold-short line at San Jose International Airport in California. After several months of paperwork and legal advice, he's now seeing clear skies at the end of a long taxiway (see " Meeting the feds").

Ironically, at about the same time Ruley got caught, Garvey announced a one-year program in March to encourage pilots who have been involved in runway incursions to discuss the incidents with FAA safety inspectors. In return, the FAA would, under many circumstances, offer warnings in lieu of citations. The FAA also said it would not prosecute pilots and mechanics who came forward to admit mistakes.

Although Ruley's case wasn't handled under the program, the FAA chose not to take formal enforcement action against him. It reveals what can happen under ideal circumstances. But this doesn't mean that things will go smoothly in every case as FAA inspectors have been known to vary.

Sounding alarms

For nearly a decade the FAA has been pursuing a high-tech approach to incursion prevention by installing ground radar systems at major airports, but the project is millions of dollars overbudget and years behind schedule.

The FAA is banking heavy on taxpayer-funded surface detection equipment connected to software called the Airport Movement Area Safety System (AMASS), or "AMESS" by critics. The equipment is supposed to be fully operational at 34 large airports by September 2002. A less costly version called ASDE-X is designed for smaller airports.

But even if AMASSs were up and running, computer analysis by the FAA, at the NTSB's request—following a close call at Chicago O'Hare International Airport where two 747s almost collided in 1999—showed that the system would have given controllers only six seconds of warning. Not enough to have averted a collision. Despite the setbacks, Mayrhofer remains a believer in other runway safety efforts. "If we are successful, we will have silence from AMASS," he wrote in a recent newspaper guest editorial.

Yet answers to the future of ATC may lie in a far-flung region in southwestern Alaska, dotted by small villages and surrounded by rustic beauty. The Yukon Kuskokwim peninsula is a popular spot for fishermen and hunters. It's also the site of a technological odyssey of sorts. UPS Aviation Technologies is developing a system there that allows pilots and air traffic controllers to see the same data by using a GPS-based system rather than radar. Called automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B), the equipment is small and light and works in mountainous terrain. The FAA's Alaska Capstone program (see " Future Flight: Air Traffic Control's Evolution") is demonstrating the technology in general aviation aircraft by providing precise aircraft speed, position, and altitude to controllers and other aircraft. For pilots, it means near-real-time weather data and traffic information. For controllers, it means traffic position data where radar can't reach, such as the Gulf of Mexico. And for both, it could even mean fewer runway incursions.

ADS-B technology can work in conjunction with moving maps of airport surfaces for the common pilot or, perhaps, it could be coupled with head-up or multifunction displays. A concern critics have raised about more equipment in the cockpit is that it might draw pilots' eyes to the wrong place during ground operations—the cockpit. After all, most incursions occur when pilots taxi onto runways without clearance. Pilots getting lost or disoriented only account for a small number of the incidents.

The FAA plans to certify the system next year to allow controllers at Anchorage Center to provide radar-like services to aircraft in remote regions. UPS has already committed to installing the datalink technology in its fleet of more than 230 aircraft. Tests to demonstrate ADS-B's safety are planned for later this month at Louisville International Airport under a four-day program called OpVal 2, in which more than 22 aircraft will participate.

Art of being seen

Being conspicuous is a key to improving runway safety, which is why the FAA intends to repaint and double the size of hold-short lines and outline them in black to improve contrast. Of course it's also a good idea to light up your aircraft as well.

A unique project being conducted by the Mitre Corporation, an FAA-funded research think tank, in cooperation with AOPA aims to dramatically improve the vividness of hold-short lines. A three-dimensional hold-short line has been painted on AOPA's ramp in Frederick, Maryland.

Using an artist's technique called anamorphic projection—producing unequal magnifications along two axes that are perpendicular to each other—the hold-short line is designed to appear as if it stands up like a black-and-yellow wall. Pilots taxiing onto AOPA's ramp have been asked to complete a survey on the effectiveness of the 3-D hold-short line, but Mitre has not yet tabulated the results.

Let's rumble

How about getting pilots to feel the taxiway instead of becoming complacent in familiar settings?

One idea that has been mentioned is to use "rumble strips" or other devices on taxiways near runway entrances to get pilots' attention. The principle is similar to what works on highways, but testing has revealed problems. As airline Capt. Mack Moore pointed out in an article in Air Line Pilot magazine, testing several years ago showed that a Boeing 727 rolling across 2-by-6-inch planks wouldn't come close to spilling a flight crew's coffee. But for small airplanes, the effects would be unmistakable, if not damaging.

Red light, green light

When the runway visual range (RVR) falls below 600 feet, pilots and vehicle operators may soon find themselves more commonly following green lights onto the runway. The principle is similar to that of a stoplight, but with a little human interaction and clever use of timers, switches, and light bulbs.

"Stop bars" mounted in the pavement on hold-short lines contain rows of red lights. When ATC issues a clearance, the red lights extinguish and a timer triggers. Green centerline lights illuminate and lead the airplane out onto the runway in an arcing path. After traveling about 150 feet beyond the stop bar, the aircraft or vehicle activates a sensor. The red lights relight and the first set of green lights go out to stop possible trailing aircraft. At 300 feet, the aircraft activates another sensor that extinguishes the final set of green lights. If the operations are not performed within a specified time period, the red lights come back on and the green lights go out.

London Heathrow Airport has about 500 stop bars. The taxiways are divided into blocks and are handled by two controllers, with the exception of the runway stop bars. Pilots have become so used to the lights that during system failures they won't cross taxiways, even when told to by controllers. This is particularly true of Sabena and Lufthansa pilots at Brussels National Airport in Belgium, according to an FAA report that looked at operations at large airports throughout Europe. After a lightning storm at Oslo Gardermoen Airport in Norway left the lights on or in the "fail-safe" mode, maintenance workers had to remove the light bulbs to get airplanes rolling.

Drawing the line

After a near-collision at Pell City Airport in Alabama, runway incursions got newfound attention, even though the FAA doesn't record them at nontowered fields. AOPA Airport Support Network volunteer Donnie Todd reports that several actions were taken, including a "be seen, be safe" seminar sponsored by the airport authority and changes to the taxiways.

At the north end, the hold-short line was moved back so that departing aircraft face north when waiting to enter Runway 20. Todd said the move encourages pilots to scan the base and final legs for approaching aircraft.

The taxiway is also being extended at the south end, and the run-up area and hold-short line will also be moved to give pilots better views. Todd said airport officials are also encouraging all aircraft to use radios and correct phraseology. ASF has been promoting a nontowered runway safety education program since 1996 and offers free Safety Advisor publications in hard copy or on its Web site.

Across the continent in Long Beach, California, airport officials have even taken the issue to the restrooms. Realizing that there's one thing, regardless of the experience level or gender, that pilots do before they take off, charts highlighting the hot spots for incursions at Long Beach/Daugherty Field (LGB) have been placed in the women's and men's rooms. It's a simple and last-ditch effort to convince pilots to be more watchful on an airport that has a confusing maze of runways and taxiways and a history of a high number of incursions. Taking it a step further, the airport had ASF produce free videos specific to LGB.

To avoid causing an incursion in the first place, Boyer has advocated that pilots simply be more vigilant and look around. ASF, in conjunction with the FAA Runway Safety Office, has published taxiway and runway diagrams on AOPA Online for larger airports; conducted numerous seminars; and, along with the FAA, distributed thousands of videos about runway safety. The Runway Safety Office also has a place on its Web site where airports can provide information to improve safety. So far, four airports have signed up. DeKalb Peachtree Airport in Atlanta, for instance, provides a diagram that highlights incursion hot spots.

Line up and wait

Phraseology is another area the FAA says that it will address immediately. One idea is to use simpler words and phrases instead of jargon that has infested radio frequencies. Some countries have favored using "line up and wait" instead of "taxi into position and hold" because it uses less than half as many syllables, as Moore further pointed out. At Heathrow, the word cleared is never used in conjunction with a runway crossing. This ensures that an aircraft won't mistakenly start its takeoff roll when another aircraft is about to cross a runway. Heathrow also uses the word cross only in conjunction with a runway crossing.

Setting an example

In the late 1990s the FAA began sending runway safety teams to airports with high rates of incursions. The teams met with airport officials, pilots, the airlines, and controllers to find solutions. One of those airports was Cleveland Hopkins International Airport in Ohio.

It once had the dubious honor of being the worst airport in the country for the number of runway incursions. Now, after a concerted effort by numerous people, it's being looked at as a model for other airports.

The airport is confusing at one approach end and with parallel runways that are only 441 feet apart, it's easy for pilots to mix them up.

In 1996, Hopkins had 19 incursions and transgressions; six each in 1997 and 1998; and three last year. In the past 12 months it has had only one incursion, which was attributed to an inadvertent taxi onto an active runway. To improve things, and ultimately fall out of the top-50 list for incursions, the airport painted thicker lines and put a stop bar at the entrance to Runway 28, plus installed better lighting. A taxiway that was confusing to pilots was closed, color-coded taxiway routes were issued, and the FAA also added an observer in the tower to alert stray airplanes.

"We just had to readjust to the way we do business," said Keith Alves, an FAA procedures specialist for the airport.

Judgment day

How will the effort be judged in, say, the next decade and beyond? As with other public safety endeavors, by what didn't happen. The FAA's goal by the year 2001 is to reduce incursions by 80 percent from the 1994 figures. The ultimate goal, however, is to get to zero as the world population swells and air traffic increases.

"We need to find answers now before our luck runs out," NTSB Chairman Jim Hall said.

Since the alarms have sounded, the aviation community has scrambled, and a lot has been done. But a lot still needs to be done—whether it involves technology not yet perfected, small airports taking the issue into their own hands, or reminding even experienced pilots that deadly crashes happen at familiar fields.


Links to additional information on runway incursions may be found on AOPA Online ( www.aopa.org/pilot/links/links0010.shtml). E-mail the author at nate.ferguson@aopa.org.


Meeting the feds

After a business meeting at San Jose (California) International Airport, I got into my Piper Cherokee 180 and taxied to Runway 29. Unfortunately, I overshot the stop line—by only about one foot. Nonetheless, two other airplanes were sent around, and I was instructed to taxi off the runway and copy down a phone number to call about "a possible pilot violation."

When I got home, I dialed the number and spoke to San Jose's senior tower controller. This was my first chance to explain what happened from my point of view—which paid off. The controller reminded me of one contributing factor, namely a heavy jet taxiing behind me. And confirmed a second: that San Jose ground controllers (who authorize taxiing to 29 from the run-up area, which is across an active taxiway) don't normally use the words "hold short."

My next call was to AOPA (I pay extra for the legal services plan—and believe me, it paid for itself in peace of mind!), where I was told what to expect next: An official letter from the local flight standards district office (FSDO), stating the apparent violation and inviting me to respond. They also gave me the first heads-up about how long this might take—in my case it was almost two months before the letter arrived. Before it did, I got a phone call from the FAA inspector assigned to my case, who asked me—in a friendly and informal way—what happened. He told me to expect the letter, not to overreact, and to write a response.

I'm glad he called, because the legalistic language used in the letter (which arrived by registered mail) was frightening. In my reply, I acknowledged that I had, in fact, pulled up on top of the stop line—but also explained just exactly how that happened, including San Jose Ground's nonuse of the critical words "hold short."

Even before the FAA inspector called, I took out an important piece of insurance by filling out a NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) form. In cases like mine, where the problem is inadvertent and nobody gets hurt, the NASA form can provide immunity from a certificate action or fine. But enforcement action may still be pursued to establish a finding of a violation, which may remain on the pilot's FAA record for 5 years.

After another two-month wait (punctuated by conversations with the FAA inspector and his supervisor, both completely professional and pleasant to talk with), I got another letter from the FSDO. This one came by normal first-class mail and informed me that the FAA had decided to take no further action in my case (phew!).

One thing that may have helped my case was talking the whole thing over with my flight instructor immediately after it happened, and reviewing the relevant FARs and runway markings. When I wrote my response letter, I was able to say that I'd already sought and received additional training (which the FAA might otherwise have required).

But it also made me face up to my responsibility for what happened: The yellow hold-short line means just that. Unless you receive explicit instruction to cross, you must stop before crossing the line (or even getting a nosewheel over it). If the directions you get from ground or tower seem ambiguous, stop right where you are and ask! That way you won't have to spend months biting your nails. — John D. Ruley


John D. Ruley, AOPA 1339755, is an instrument-rated private pilot with more than 500 hours. He is a freelance author who writes for several technical magazines and Web sites.