By Nathan A. Ferguson
Watch a video of AOPA President Phil Boyer’s testimony
Runway safety took center stage on Feb. 13 as Congress asked industry leaders and government officials to address the increasing number of runway incursions.
Incursions often occur when pilots become distracted or complacent in the cockpit. The same could be said from a big picture, statistical point of view. When the FAA loses focus on it programs, safety issues abound.
AOPA President Phil Boyer testified at the hearing before the House aviation subcommittee and called on the FAA to make runway safety a national priority. Boyer outlined the runway incursion problem, illustrated what has been done in the past, and made recommendations for the future. He also made a pitch to free up airport funding so that infrastructure programs, which could help prevent incursions, can move forward.
Shortly before the hearing, the FAA decided to require all pilots at Part 121 air carriers to undergo additional training on runway safety. One option, in addition to viewing an FAA PowerPoint presentation, is to take the Commercial Runway Safety course, created by the AOPA Air Safety Foundation in conjunction with the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA). The original course, General Aviation Runway Safety , was launched in 2003 and was so well received the FAA and ALPA later asked the foundation for a commercial pilot version.
“I can think of no single organization that has spent more time, energy, and dollars on runway safety than the AOPA Air Safety Foundation,” Boyer said.
The United States is currently experiencing its safest period in aviation history. The December 2007 AOPA Air Safety Foundation Joseph T. Nall Report, using data from government sources, shows general aviation accidents continue on a downward trend. The number of accidents per 100,000 flight hours decreased from 7.19 in 1997 to an all-time low of 6.32 in 2006, while the fatal accident rate dropped 7.4 percent during the same period.
“However, we cannot rest on our laurels. Safety requires constant vigilance. And this is evident in the area of runway incursions,” Boyer said in written testimony.
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.
In September 2007, the FAA released its Runway Safety Report, examining runway incursions at towered airports between fiscal year 2003 and 2006. The report found that 72 percent of all runway incursions (937 of 1306) involved a general aviation aircraft, but that GA only accounted for 55 percent of National Airspace System (NAS) activity. However, only 44 percent (580 of the 1306) of all incursions were pilot deviations involving a GA aircraft. And, of those 580 pilot deviations, the FAA classified 92 percent as less severe.
While the FAA report notes the rate of incursions has remained relatively constant, the November 2007 Government Accountability Office’s (GAO’s) Aviation Runway and Ramp Safety report notes that preliminary FAA data for fiscal year 2007 indicate a disturbing upward trend.
Previous studies show that there is no correlation between runway incursions and pilot certificate type. In addition, incursions are not related to flight time or pilot experience. Virtually all runway incursions are inadvertent and unintentional. It can happen to any pilot at any time because of confusion, ignorance, inattention, or complacency.
“Clearly, we have a problem. And the ‘we’ refers to the airlines, general aviation, the FAA, the air traffic controllers, the airports—every member of the aviation community. The number of reported incursions may be low when compared to the total number of operations conducted each year, but the potential for a catastrophic accident makes runway safety an area of special concern for the aviation community,” Boyer said.
The GAO further stated that the “FAA’s Office of Runway Safety has not carried out its leadership role.” A cursory look at history shows that during times of inadequate leadership from the FAA, the number of runway incursions increases.
In 1990, an all-time high of 281 runway incursions occurred, and the NTSB added the prevention of runway incursions to its “most wanted” safety list. Under FAA leadership and coordination, progress was made and 1993 marked a low with 186 incursions. However, the FAA’s focus and resources shifted to other priorities, and the result was a dramatic increase in runway incursions through the mid-1990s.
“In 1997, then-Administrator Jane Garvey realized there was a runway safety problem. She called me and said, ‘Phil can you do something? AOPA can work so much faster than the FAA.’ And we stepped in at that time and we did a lot of things,” Boyer said.
Back as a top priority in 1999, the FAA announced a new runway safety initiative, created a new program office, reestablished runway incursion action teams, held regional workshops, and created new pilot programs. Runway safety was an industry-government partnership, and the AOPA Air Safety Foundation worked closely with the FAA’s Office of Runway Safety on training, outreach, and education. It was a cooperative and effective campaign. Although progress was made, the FAA’s attention was once again diverted and existing partnerships were dissolved.
As the GAO report noted, the FAA’s Office of Runway Safety has not updated the national runway safety plan since 2002, despite a policy requiring that it be upgraded every two to three years. During this time the office was without a permanent director for two years and its staff was reduced by almost half.
Runway incursions have a variety of causes and are often the result of a combination of factors. When there is limited visibility, poor lighting, bad weather, inadequate paint lines, confusing signs, or a combination of these, there is a greater risk of an accident. Runway incursions can be reduced with relatively inexpensive, low-tech methods—better markings, more reflective paint, lights, and signage.
These activities can be funded through the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program (AIP). AIP grants play a critical role in funding airport safety projects. According to the FAA, more than $170 million in AIP grants were awarded to implement recommendations made by runway safety action teams in fiscal year 2005 and 2006. Yet, for the past two fiscal years, the administration’s budget request has proposed to cut nearly a billion dollars from this vital program.
“And last week, we were again disappointed to see that the administration’s fiscal year 2009 budget request for AIP is $765 million below the fiscal 2008 enacted level. AOPA strongly supports robust AIP funding,” Boyer said. “We commend Congress for its wisdom in rejecting these shortsighted cuts and specifically thank this subcommittee for its leadership in providing $15.8 billion for AIP in your bill, the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2007 (H.R.2881).”
Unfortunately, FAA reauthorization is stalled in the Senate and the agency is currently operating under an extension that does not include AIP contract authority. With each passing day, important airport safety projects are being delayed. For example, Centennial Airport near Denver cannot complete the reconstruction of taxiway Charlie because it is waiting to receive $2.7 million in fiscal year 2008 AIP grants. This project provides new connections to the runway that improve surface flow and will reduce the potential for aircraft-on-aircraft incursions.
“We believe that a multi-year FAA reauthorization bill is not only obtainable but also essential to FAA’s modernization efforts aimed at improving system safety and efficiency,” Boyer said. “AOPA is committed to working with the subcommittee, Congress, the FAA, and the aviation community toward that goal.”
The AOPA Air Safety Foundation already provides a wealth of resources for pilots from safety courses to seminars. Recognizing that runway safety is a community-wide issue, AOPA and the foundation have committed to the following activities in 2008:
The foundation will expand runway safety awareness in the June 2008 edition of AOPA Pilot. The magazine will feature an editorial on general aviation runway safety: the statistics; review of some of the more memorable close calls; operations at towered airports; techniques for operating safely; and a view from the tower/air traffic control observations. The edition will also contain a “Never Again” article by a pilot who has committed an incursion.
The foundation will expand emphasis on runway safety in the more than 90 Flight Instructor Refresher Clinics it conducts this year (about 4,000 instructors/attendees annually).
The foundation will include an article in its Instructor Report that it distributes to all current certificated flight instructors (more 90,000).
The foundation will include a special runway safety module in the nearly 60 safety seminars scheduled for fall 2008.
AOPA recommend the following actions the FAA can take in the short term to address runway incursions:
The FAA must once again make runway safety a national priority. The director of the Office of Runway Safety should report directly to the FAA administrator.
The FAA should examine the feasibility of requiring a specific air traffic control clearance to cross each runway as recommended by the NTSB.
The FAA should continue the Runway Incursion Information Evaluation Program (RIIEP) that is set to expire in July 2008. In addition, the FAA needs to ensure that the data collected is being analyzed and used to implement cost-effective, corrective measures in a timely manner.
The FAA should identify “hot spots”—areas where there have been a high concentration of incursions—on National Aeronautical Charting Office (NACO) charts as soon as possible. The AOPA Air Safety Foundation can then make the information available to the pilot community.
The FAA should work closely with the aviation community on an educational and outreach campaign for pilots to prevent runway incursions.
February 13, 2008