Runway Safety: Safer Skies Through Ground Operations

By Capt. Steve Jangelis (Delta), ALPA Aviation Safety Chairman
Capt. Steve Jangelis (Delta), ALPA's Air Safety Organization Aviation Safety chairman, stresses the need to improve air safety both on the ground and in the air during the NTSB's recent Runway Incursion Safety Issues, Prevention, and Mitigation forum.

As we track risks in our daily operations, runway incursions are an industrywide issue. Whether you’re flying single pilot or an airplane full of passengers or cargo, a runway incursion can happen to any and all pilots, no matter what experience level, airline size, or the sort of airplane you operate.

At the two-day Runway Incursion Safety Issues, Prevention, and Mitigation forum, hosted by the NTSB in Washington, D.C., in late September, I stressed this fact to industry reps, government leaders, and pilots during a panel discussion on aircraft operations. Meetings like this are just one of the many avenues ALPA’s Air Safety Organization (ASO) pilot representatives and Engineering & Air Safety Department staff are working daily to improve air safety both on the ground and in the sky.

I represent ALPA as the industry co-chair of the FAA’s Runway Safety Council (RSC), a group of stakeholders that includes the NTSB, the National Business Aviation Association, the American Association of Airport Executives, Airports Council International, and many others. Meeting quarterly, the RSC discusses runway incursions and excursions from the past three months at the nation’s “core 30” airports and advises the FAA on a number of topics—from changes to operating procedures and technical updates to charting changes and testing new equipment at Part 139 certificated fields.

In those meetings, we review all of the known factors surrounding an incursion. And it’s always tough for us on the council to listen to the tower tapes from an incursion event. We hear clearances read back flawlessly, but mistakes are still made that result in an aircraft being where it’s not authorized to be. This can happen for any number of reasons and usually we’re not looking to add more signage, but we ask the question “is it likely to happen again if we do nothing?”

Technological improvements such as Airport Surface Detection Equipment-Model X (ASDE-X) and runway status lights (RWSL) are helping to reduce the risk of runway incursions. ASDE-X is a surveillance system that uses radar, ground-based multilateration, and ADS-B to allow air traffic controllers to track surface movement of aircraft and vehicles. Developed to help reduce critical Category A and B runway incursions, it’s currently in use at 35 U.S. airports.

Runway status lights (RWSL), a newer technology, tells pilots and ground vehicle operators to stop when runways are occupied. Embedded in the pavement of runways and taxiways, the lights automatically turn red when other traffic makes it dangerous to enter, cross, or begin takeoff. An automated system, RWSL provides direct and immediate alerts with no input from controllers or pilots. The technology is currently in use at 17 airports across the U.S. and will be deployed at three additional airports over the next two years.

Why am I personally dedicated to reducing these preventable occurrences? I, too, was involved in a potentially catastrophic runway incursion that took place in early 2001. The ensuing investigation determined that controller error—not pilot error—led to the near collision involving 350-plus passengers. Mistakes happen, but the system needs resilience and safeguards to capture these errors and give frontline operators on both sides of the microphone the ability to identify when an error has been made. In my role as ALPA’s ASO Aviation Safety chairman, I make it my personal pledge every day to use all of our resources and pilot volunteers to work with regulators and our industry partners so that an event like the one I experienced never happens again.

At the runway incursion forum, Christopher Hart, a member of the NTSB, addressed another incursion event, observing, “Everyone emphasized the need for more and better data. Data to help us identify the problems, data to help us determine what caused the problems, data to help us develop interventions, and data to help us determine whether the interventions are accomplishing the desired result.”

ALPA has been at the forefront of data-collection and data-analysis efforts. Safety Management Systems (SMS), the Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP), and the Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA) programs have all provided vast sums of data. These data points help airlines, industry, and safety analysts study, understand, and ultimately improve the system—all while maintaining the integrity of the programs and the privacy of their participants.

Hart, however, indicated that there are opportunities to improve safety programs. “We need to determine how to collect better data, how to analyze the data more effectively, and…how to share the data more effectively—both with peers and with other participants in the system.”

So what are the data telling us at this moment? The recent trend has been that pilots—of all walks of life—are attempting to operate on the wrong surfaces. Namely, they’re lined up to take off or land on taxiways instead of runways. Not only is this a deviation from an issued air traffic control clearance, but in the wrong situation it could be catastrophic to those in the plane as well as to those on the ground.

Sometimes the cause is that flightcrew members are focused on their upcoming departure and not on the immediate task of taxiing the aircraft. But it can be as simple as being distracted by something trivial in the cockpit. Ultimately, we are human, but we also have a job to do, and safety is our highest priority.

Thanks in large part to the efforts of ALPA’s ASO, there are fewer runway incursions today than in the past few decades. Yet more work needs to be done before incursions are a thing of the past. But with the help of every pilot, controller, airport vehicle operator, and industry stakeholder, that day may soon be on the horizon.

You Can Help to Reduce Runway Incursions

Be aware—In accordance with your airline’s SOPs, have a taxi plan in place and brief it before leaving the gate. Try to have everything—automation and navigation equipment—programmed and tuned before you push back from the gate to minimize distraction. Know if the airport is equipped with Airport Surface Detection Equipment-Model X or runway status lights.

Be alert—In accordance with your airline’s SOPs, minimize working on tasks that divert attention away from looking outside and make sure that at least one person is scanning for traffic and aware of the aircraft’s position.

Report—If you see something, say something. Radio calls don’t cost anything. Ask the question rather than risk being wrong. A second of double-checking can save hours of training, potential paperwork, and perhaps even the lives of passengers and crew. And if you have an issue, report your concerns through your carrier’s Aviation Safety Action Program.

Volunteer—Become an airport safety liaison (ASL) for your airport: The most effective interface ALPA pilots have with airport managers is through the ASL program. The ASL offers the airline pilot perspective and provides a proactive, consistent, and known resource to airport management where pilot input may be desirable. If you’re interested in becoming an ASL, contact ALPA’s Engineering & Air Safety Department at or call 1-800-424-2470.

FAA Runway Incursion Classifications

Category A: A serious incident in which a collision was narrowly avoided.

Category B: An incident in which separation decreases and there’s a significant potential for collision, which may result in a time-critical corrective/evasive response to avoid a collision.

Category C: An incident characterized by ample time and/or distance to avoid a collision.

Category D: An incident that meets the definition of runway incursion, such as the incorrect presence of a single vehicle/person/aircraft on the protected area of a surface designated for the landing and takeoff of aircraft but with no immediate safety consequences—Christopher Freeze, Senior Aviation Technical Writer

This article was originally published in the December 2017 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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