AOPA Online Members Only -- Runway Incursion Is No Accident

Runway Incursions

Runway Incursion Is No Accident

By H. Dean Chamberlain (From FAA Aviation News, October 1999)

Five simple words, but together they define one of the FAA's hottest safety topics. Although most runway incursions do not result in an accident, the potential is always there, especially in low visibility situations. In most cases, an air traffic controller, the pilot, or a person on the ground resolve the incident before it results in an accident. But the fact that the number of runway incursions has been increasing over the years has caused FAA Administrator Jane Garvey to make runway incursions one of the agency's top priority safety items.

"I am concerned about the number of runway incursions because according to the National Transportation Safety Board and FAA data, runway incursions continue to increase. There has been a 73 percent increase in the number of reported incidents from 1993 through last year. There were 186 reported in 1993. In 1998, that number was 325. The rate increased from 0.30 per 100,000 airport operations to 0.52 incursions per 100,000 airport operations. We must reduce that rate," Garvey said.

In 1996, FAA established the Runway Incursion Program office. The name has since been changed to the National Runway Safety Program, however, program responsibilities remain as initially outlined. The Program's task is to oversee and coordinate all of the FAA's runway incursion prevention efforts. The Program's goal, established in 1998, is to reduce the number of runway incursions by 15 percent of the 1997 baseline of 292 by the end of calendar year 2000. To accomplish that goal, the Runway Safety Program is focusing its efforts on three major operational areas. Those are air traffic control (ATC) operational errors and deviations; pilot deviations; and vehicle and pedestrian deviations.

According to the Runway Safety Program Manager Sue O'Brien, reducing runway incursions requires a concentrated effort on the part of all concerned; FAA, the aviation community, and all ground support personnel. The Runway Safety Program, consisting of representatives from Air Traffic Control, Airports, and Flight Standards, directly addresses awareness, training, and education initiatives while working hand-in-hand with the Runway Incursion Reduction Program on technological solutions. Additionally, the program promotes awareness at numerous aviation seminars, activities, and exhibits throughout the year.

For those not familiar with the term, runway incursion, and its potential risks, one of the worst aviation accidents in history resulted from a runway incursion when two Boeing 747 jumbo jets collided at Tenerife, Canary Islands in 1977. Because of fog and missed communications one of the B-747's started its takeoff roll while the other was on the runway. In the resulting collision, 583 people died.

As the number of aircraft operations increase the potential for a runway incursion accident increases with any mistake made by a pilot, air traffic controller, or vehicle operator during operations conducted within the runway safety area.

If the term runway safety area (RSA) is new for some readers, the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) Pilot-Controller Glossary contains the complete term. In part, the AIM defines runway safety area as a defined surface surrounding the runway prepared, or suitable, for reducing the risk of damage to airplanes in the event of an undershoot, overshoot, or excursion from the runway. The dimensions of the RSA vary and can be determined by using the criteria contained within Advisory Circular (AC) 150/5300-13, Airport Design, Chapter 3. Figure 3-1 in AC 150/5300-13 depicts the RSA.

FAA defines runway incursion (in part) as, "Any occurrence at an airport involving an aircraft, vehicle, person, or object on the ground that creates a collision hazard or results in a loss of separation with an aircraft taking off, intending to takeoff, landing, or intending to land."

To complete our definitions, FAA defines an occurrence as:


A. A pilot deviation is any action of a pilot that results in violation of a Federal Aviation Regulation.

B. An operational error is an occurrence attributable to an element of the ATC system which results in: 1) less than the applicable separation minima between two or more aircraft, or between an aircraft and obstacles. Obstacles include vehicles, equipment, personnel on runways; or 2) an aircraft landing or departing on a runway closed to aircraft after receiving air traffic authorization.

C. A vehicle or pedestrian deviation results from a vehicle operator, non-pilot operator of an aircraft, or pedestrian who deviates onto the movement area including the runway without ATC authorization.

Now that we all have a basic understanding of what a runway incursion is, let's look at some things everyone can do to combat the problem.

First a big picture technical solution: FAA is in the process of deploying an Airport Movement Area Safety System (AMASS) at major airports. AMASS is a software program designed to provide more surface information for air traffic controllers (ATC). AMASS is designed to use the current Airport Surface Detection Equipment (ASDE) radar to monitor the airport surface areas. AMASS would alert an air traffic controller if an aircraft for example taxied onto a runway. But ATC's ability to better "see" aircraft and vehicles within the runway safety area and its taxiways and runways in low visibility conditions with surface radar is only part of the solution.

In addition to surface radar, FAA is also looking at other technical systems such as ground loop systems, GPS transponder based systems, and similar technologies to detect potential runway incursions. FAA is also looking at better airport design and operational procedures.

There are also non-technological alternatives. The simplest answer is for air traffic controllers, pilots, vehicle operators, and yes, pedestrians, to don't do anything to cause a runway incursion. Runway incursions are a people problem. Whether an air traffic controller makes a mistake and puts two aircraft on the same runway, or an airline or general aviation pilot lands on the wrong runway or taxies onto a runway without authorization or by mistake, or a construction worker drives across an active runway, people are involved in and cause this problem, and until people stop making these kinds of mistakes, we are going to have runway incursion problems. One of the more common factors associated with runway incursions is pilots or vehicle operators entering the active runway without air traffic authorization.

According to Tom McSweeney, Associate Administrator for Regulation and Certification, "I think two of the best answers to solving this problem are training and education. Our Flight Standards Service is responsible for pilot training and certification and how those pilots operate their aircraft once they are certificated. Whether they are flying a simple, single-engine, two-place training aircraft, or if they are flying a state of the art Boeing 777, they have had to meet a Flight Standards training requirement. Working with the national Runway Safety Program office, Flight Standards is looking at how training can become part of the solution.

"Education is another part. For example, our Aviation Safety Program reaches thousands of pilots, maintenance technicians, and the general public across America every year. In conjunction with the Runway Safety Program office, we are going to work with our Aviation Safety Inspectors and our Aviation Safety Program Managers to increase the safety awareness of everyone who works on or operates a vehicle or aircraft on a runway safety area about the importance of this problem. I want to thank the national Runway Safety Program office for its support in providing guidance and materials, pamphlets, and other materials to support our mutual efforts. I also want to thank the many aviation industry groups that are also working on this vitally important safety project.

"We will also work within our certification system to make sure everyone who is preparing for any type of FAA certificate that will give that person access to an airport operating area is made aware of the danger of runway incursion. In fact, Flight Standards has written a special runway incursion letter that will be sent to all certificated flight instructors and designated pilot examiners. The letter outlines the problem and the important role flight instructors and examiners play in reducing the number of runway incursions," McSweeney said.

Training and education are part of the solution. The hardest part of the job is getting the many training and education materials being produced through the efforts of the Runway Safety Program office out to those who need it the most. Although, it may take some time to reach the new people entering aviation, that may be the easiest part of the job. The question of how can the FAA reach those airmen already certificated or those non-airmen operating on airports today such as support of construction employees is one we must constantly work on.

The special flight instructor and designated pilot examiner letter is a start. But since many certificated pilots only see a flight instructor when the pilot has to take his or her required flight review, there may be some delay in reaching these pilots through CFI's. And some people who may be involved in runway incursions never have to do any type of training or recurrent training such as a new construction worker repairing a taxiway at a small airport. So what else can be done?

One way is through the FAA's Aviation Safety Program. The Program's Safety Program Managers (SPM) will be discussing this hot topic in their regular safety meetings and newsletters, but the problem they face is not every airmen attends FAA safety meetings. In fact some SPM's say, "Those who need us the most, don't attend our meetings."

So what is the answer? Initial airmen training and recurrent training is one answer. Another is using the FAA's Aviation Safety Program to reach those who are already involved in aviation and attend safety meetings. Another approach is through the various membership groups and safety organizations such as the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) and the various maintenance organizations such as the Professional Aviation Maintenance Association (PAMA) and others. These groups can reach their members through their publications and other internal information channels such as internet sites, meetings, conventions, and training sessions.

But all of the techniques designed to reach those at risk for committing a runway incursion and the various aviation membership groups discussed can't do it all. They and FAA need your help and the help of everyone in aviation. Because one of the most effective ways to reduce runway incursions is through one on one discussions about the problem with pilots and others who operate on or about a runway safety area. Pilots, maintenance technicians, vehicle operators, airport managers, and anyone who is involved in airport operations should talk about the problem and discuss ways to reduce or better yet avoid the problem by discussing this issue with their friends, coworkers, employees, friends, students, and anyone else who has access to a runway safety area.

Some safety points to live by include only taxiing or driving along approved access areas; taking off and landing only on the correct runway when authorized by ATC; if operating on a towered airport with an air traffic controller on duty, to only operate in accordance with ATC instructions; and if, at anytime, an instruction or clearance is not clearly understood to ask for verification or clarification. If someone is operating into an unfamiliar airport, that person should have studied the airport layout before approaching the field for landing. One of the best ways to do this for large, complex airports is by reviewing that airport's instrument approach chart. And since it is hard at times to see some taxiway routes and markings at large airports from the cockpit of a small general aviation type aircraft, pilots unfamiliar with the local operating environment should ask ATC for detailed progressive taxi instructions before starting to taxi in from landing or before taxiing out for takeoff.

Other important ideas include contacting ATC any time you become lost or disorientated on an airport; to maintain a sterile cockpit by avoiding unnecessary conversations within the cockpit; if in a small aircraft while taxiing, taking off, and landing, to keep a good look outside the aircraft for other aircraft operating within the vicinity. Use your aircraft lighting to the extent possible to make your aircraft visible to others operating in the air or on the ground.

If you can't observe the approach area of a runway you have been cleared onto and told to hold, you should maintain a careful listening watch on the frequency for that landing runway. There has been more than one case of an aircraft landing over an aircraft holding on the runway for takeoff.

Because general aviation pilots are involved in many of the runway incursions, they as a group need to be particularly alert while operating on an airport at night after a long day of working. Fatigue and lack of sleep can increase your risk of loss of situational awareness, especially on a large, complex field at night. One way to combat this is to know and understand the relatively new airport signage that has been installed at most airports in the last few years. Pilots also need to review the current runway and taxiway markings used on today's airports. The Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) shows all of the current runway markings and signage.

Equally important for all pilots to know and understand are the meanings of the different types of hold short lines on an airport. For example, what does the double dashed lines mean at a hold short line when approaching them from the runway side?

The lines show that you are expected to cross the dashed lines when exiting the runway.

As noted in the FAA's Runway Safety Program's internet website and included in the letter to all flight instructors and designated pilot examiners, "Historical data clearly demonstrate that runway incursions most likely to cause accidents generally occur at complex, high volume airports. These airports are characterized by parallel/intersecting runways; multiple taxiway/runway intersections; complex taxi patterns; and the need for traffic to cross active runways. The analysis of historical data also shows that a disproportionately large number of runway incursions involving general aviation pilots result from misunderstood controller instructions, confusion, disorientation, and/or inattention."

Based upon this data, general aviation pilots need to be particularly careful when operating into unfamiliar, complex airports. Since many general aviation pilots normally fly single-pilot, they don't have a copilot to back them up with the communications or to look up the airport diagram while taxiing, so single-pilot aircraft need to be operated very carefully in the above type situations. The old adage still applies, "When in doubt: Ask."

The same is true of anyone driving a vehicle on an airport movement area who is not familiar with the airport and its safety procedures. In the case of vehicles, they should always display an appropriate safety signal. Since many of the incursion incidents occur in low light and low visibility situations, that signal should normally be a rotating or flashing safety light. Vehicles operating within the runway safety area must be equipped with two-way radio that allows communication with the designated ATC section having jurisdiction over the runway safety area before the vehicle is driven on or across that area, taxiway or runway. At some airports, there are designated vehicle operating areas and lanes that are marked so pilots should be alert for vehicles in those areas. Vehicles in such designated areas may or may not have radio communications with ATC.

For those who operate on airport movement areas, taxi ways, or runways, when was the last time you reviewed the light signals for loss communications or no communications while driving on an airport? If you have never seen or heard of the surface light signals they exist and you should review them in the AIM. In fact, one of the FAA's runway incursion project decals has the light signal colors printed with their respective meanings. The self-sticking decal is designed to be mounted in any type of surface vehicle.

Now if there were some way to keep deer and the occasional stray cow from wandering across airport operating areas. Deer don't know how to read, nor do they understand the danger of crossing a runway in front of a landing aircraft. Plus it is kind of hard to have a one on one conversation with a deer, but people wandering across an airport operating area or runway is another matter. People should know better. If you know someone who does wander around an airport like a lost deer, whether on foot or in an aircraft or vehicle, please discuss this important runway incursion safety issue with them. The life you might save just might be yours.

To paraphrase a famous American bear, "Only you can prevent runway incursions."

For more information on this important topic, you can review both the Aeronautical Information Manual for recommended safe operating procedures and the national Runway Safety Program's Web site at www.faa.gov/runwaysafety/.