ALPA Leaders Weigh In on Runway Incursions

New Technologies No Replacement for Two Pilots on the Flight Deck

By Gavin Francis, Senior Aviation Writer
Capt. Jason Ambrosi, ALPA’s president, and Capt. Steve Jangelis (Delta), ALPA’s Air Safety Organization Aviation Safety chair, take part in the NTSB roundtable “State of Runway Incursions: A Path Forward” with other safety experts from industry, labor, and government to discuss issues related to runway incursions.

Capt. Jason Ambrosi, ALPA’s president, as well as Capt. Steve Jangelis (Delta), ALPA’s Air Safety Organization Aviation Safety chair, participated in the NTBS roundtable “State of Runway Incursions: A Path Forward” on May 23. The meeting, announced in early May by Jennifer Homendy, the NTSB chair, brought together safety experts from industry, labor, and government to discuss issues related to runway incursions.

There have been several high-profile close calls in recent months—including incidents at Boston Logan International Airport, Sarasota Bradenton International Airport, John F. Kennedy International Airport, and Austin-Bergstrom International Airport—prompting aviation stakeholders to take a closer look at the problem and review safety measures. In the first four months of this year, there were nine recorded incidents that the FAA has identified as either Category A or Category B incidents. These are the most serious categories, which include incidents with a “significant potential” for collision or in which a collision was “narrowly avoided.”

Some airline industry observers speculate that these incidents may be linked to the increased travel demand that the airline industry has experienced postpandemic. Although these close-call events have raised concerns, stakeholders continue to emphasize the overall safety of U.S. aviation. But they acknowledge that addressing the issue is a matter of urgency, recognizing that such incidents could be an indicator of other underlying problems.

Although the number of Category A and B events—those which pose the most risk—are slightly higher at this time of year than they were last year, Scott Proudfoot, an FAA runway safety program manager, said that the overall number of runway incursions is currently trending lower. “Getting all of our stakeholders involved is a key element in reducing surface events,” said Proudfoot. “If we work together as a team, we’ll continue to see an improvement in surface safety and a reduction in runway incursions.”

The NTSB roundtable followed an earlier safety summit organized by the FAA in March. Participants at that conference noted that airline workers returning to jobs after extended absences during the pandemic, as well as employees who’ve only recently entered the industry, could be another factor in the recent increase in safety-related incidents. Roundtable attendees also acknowledged this and highlighted the need to provide these workers with better training. The FAA issued an advisory following the summit emphasizing the importance of training and procedures.

“We have a lot of ‘new’ in the system right now,” said Ambrosi, underscoring the need for airlines to train beyond minimum requirements. “We have new pilots, new controllers, new flight attendants, new ground personnel. So we need to get back to the basics of training. When you have a lot of new in the system, you have to exceed the minimums. There needs to be better training and better mentoring.”

Roundtable participants also discussed the use of various surface surveillance technologies at some airports that track the movement of aircraft and ground vehicles within the airport environment, as well as warning systems that use sensors to detect potential incursions. These systems provide real-time situational awareness to controllers and can also alert pilots and vehicle operators to runway conflicts so that they can take corrective action. Such technology is currently installed at 43 U.S. airports. But that’s just a fraction of the approximately 500 airports in the U.S. that handle commercial airline service.

“In 2022, there were 16 Category A and B runway incursions,” said Bridget Singratanakul, a National Air Traffic Controllers Association runway safety representative. “Of those, four occurred at surface-surveillance facilities. The other 12 occurred at airports that didn’t have surface surveillance.” Singratanakul stressed the importance of giving flight crews and controllers the extra tools they need so that they can immediately assess and use that information.

Stakeholders across the roundtable agreed that systems designed to mitigate runway incursions need to be upgraded and made available to more airports but acknowledged that the technology is expensive.

“I don’t work for the FAA, but I’ll advocate for more funding for the FAA,” said Homendy. “If we want to upgrade existing technologies to prevent runway incursions, implement new technologies, invest in projects to reconfigure or construct new taxiways, install new lighting, modernize systems so that we’re better able to use data in decision-making, and build upon an already highly skilled workforce…that takes resources. That’s an investment in safety and in service—an investment I believe the traveling public wants and expects of the federal government.”

Some investment is already being made to help airports undertake improvements. The FAA recently announced that it has allocated $100 million to support a number of airports in implementing modifications that would help to minimize incursions. However, that funding only covers a dozen airports. A much larger funding effort would have to take place in order to deploy technology upgrades on a wider scale.

Amid the discussion about technology upgrades and overall airport improvements, Homendy also asked about the impact of recent proposals by some in the airline industry that would reduce the number of pilots on the flight deck. In response, Ambrosi referenced the February 4 near-miss incident in Austin, Tex., in which tragedy was narrowly averted by an alert FedEx Express pilot. That incident involved a FedEx cargo jet and a Southwest Airlines airplane. The two aircraft came extremely close to one another, separated by a distance of just 115 feet. The FedEx airplane had received clearance to land on the same runway that the Southwest jet was preparing to use for takeoff. The FedEx first officer called for a go-around when, in low visibility, he saw the Southwest aircraft on the runway.

“The single-most important safety component on any airplane is having at least two well-trained, experienced, and adequately rested pilots on the flight deck,” said Ambrosi. “Look no further than Austin. We support technology, absolutely. But keep the pilots. Let’s make sure that we have eyes looking out the window.”

As with many of the other recent close-call events, there’s still an active NTSB investigation pertaining to the incident in Austin. It will take several months before the board makes its findings and recommendations public.

Drawing parallels to the Austin incident, Jangelis shared his own experience with a serious runway incursion in 2001.

“I was on the flight deck of a B-767 that landed over the top of a B-737 in Fort Lauderdale,” said Jangelis. “It was at night, in the rain. We never saw the other jet. It sounds very similar to Austin, doesn’t it? The same setup. A controller cleared us to land, not once, but twice.”

Jangelis didn’t actually find out what had occurred until ALPA’s Legal Department contacted him later to ask for a statement. That was when he first became aware that he’d been involved in the incident.

“We had 303 people on board that airplane. There were another 64 people on the aircraft that was on the ground. It could have been another Tenerife. That incident is what got me involved in safety work, and it’s how I got involved doing this work with the Air Line Pilots Association. I want to make sure I do everything I can to keep that from ever happening again.”

This article was originally published in the June 2023 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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