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NTSB seeks runway safety solution

Updated: Feb 20

The rising rate of the most severe types of runway incursions at U.S. airports has the NTSB taking a fresh look at the underlying problems and recommending new solutions, with help from the FAA, unions and the industry.

So-called Category A and B incursions—the most dangerous—have occurred on average only about 15 times per year over the past five years. However, the raw numbers are deceiving, as the number of flight operations per year has been decreasing, which means the frequency of dangerous incidents (the number of incursions divided by the number of flight operations) has been increasing.

According to an Aviation Week analysis based on FAA data, the rate of Cat. A and B incursions has been steadily on the rise since the start of fiscal 2013, when the rate was 0.23 incursions per million operations (one incursion in every 4.5 million operations). As of this July, the rate was up to 0.375, just shy of the FAA’s target maximum rate of 0.395, a number often exceeded within individual months of the year, but not over the full 12 months.

The trend has drawn the attention of the NTSB, which several months ago launched a special investigation into the matter, says Dan Bartlett, an NTSB senior transportation safety specialist and former air traffic controller. The reports—typically based on one-year investigations—can be strictly information-gathering efforts or examinations of technical issues related to one or more accident investigations.

Bartlett says the NTSB is planning to include the FAA, controllers and pilot unions as well as other industry participants to help identify “some of the deeper causes and effects” of the incursions, defined as a loss of separation between two aircraft or an aircraft and a ground vehicle or pedestrian.

The FAA categorizes incursion severity levels as “A” through “D,” with A signifying a narrowly avoided collision and D, no immediate safety consequences. Incidents are separated into operational events or errors (the fault of controllers), pilot deviations, vehicle or pedestrian deviations or “other.”


The rate for the worst incursions – Category A and B – increasing since 2013

Rate could exceed the FAA’s maximum target this year

FAA official calls it the “most critical risk”

The FAA’s Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing database shows Cat. A incursions increased from two in fiscal 2013 to five in 2014 and 11 in 2015. This year, there have been six. Cat. B incidents, which have a “significant potential for collision.” Cat. B incidents have been more level—nine in 2013, nine in 2014, four in 2015 and nine so far this year. The number of all types of incursions has also been relatively constant in the past two years, with 1,458 in fiscal 2015 and 1,320 so far this year.

The Cat. A and B incursion rate today remains far below levels in the early 2000s—when the rate was typically about 0.5—in large part due to interventions by the FAA and the government/industry Commercial Aviation Safety Team and local runway safety action teams to address issues at specific airports. Following the fatal August 2006 runway overrun crash of Comair Flight 5191 in Lexington, Kentucky, the FAA in 2007 launched a “Call to Action” runway safety initiative that brought technology and process improvements that ultimately reduced Cat. A and B incursions by 44%.

Intelligence. Analysis. Insight.

This story is a selection from the September 5, 2016 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology. New content posted daily online.

Based on the resurgence in incursions, however, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta in June 2015 convened a second Call to Action summit. Interventions being developed fall into three categories: visual recognition, communications, and procedures and awareness. Delivery dates for individual mitigations, procedures and technologies range from soon through 2019.

A large part of the 2015 safety summit dealt with potential solutions to surface confusion, where pilots or drivers get lost. Airport construction projects, fatigue, confusing airport geometry and signage, as well as weather and nighttime operations are contributing factors.

While the NTSB is aware of the FAA’s concurrent efforts, the special investigation will make a broader and independent assessment of the problem, considering not only best practices from U.S. airports, but foreign airports as well. Bartlett notes that the Dutch Safety Board is analyzing certain U.S. airports as part of its Schiphol Airport runway safety analysis. They ask very good questions, he says: “The questions aren’t right or wrong, but are causing us to step back and take a look at the things we do and why we do them.” He concedes that the NTSB study could find that “we’re going down the right path,” but says recommendations will be issued nonetheless.

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