Following the release of a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study of aviation runway and ramp safety, several members of Congress called on the FAA to take immediate steps “to address its inattention to runway and taxiway safety.”
The GAO said that while the FAA has made progress in addressing runway overruns and reports that 70 percent of the runways at U.S. commercial airports “substantially comply” with runway safety area standards, the rate of runway incursions has not decreased over the past five years.
The GAO made the report at the request of Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), chairman of the House aviation subcommittee; Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), a member of the Senate aviation subcommittee; and several other lawmakers. The legislators made the request in June.
“What this report makes clear is that the FAA needs to take immediate steps to address its inattention to runway and taxiway safety,” said Costello. “I have been concerned for some time that the FAA is not adequately budgeting for safety programs, and the lack of focus on runway and taxiway safety since 2001 underscores the problem.”
He said the House-passed FAA reauthorization bill provides $42 million for runway incursion reduction programs and $74 million for runway status light acquisition and installation over the four years of the bill. It also requires the agency to refocus its Strategic Runway Safety Plan.
“The National Transportation Safety Board has included improving runway safety on its Most Wanted List since the list was established in 1990,” added Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the full House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “While new technologies have come on line and are slowly being deployed to U.S. airports, serious runway incursions and other incidents continue to occur.” He called the findings “distressing.”
Despite the fact that the FAA has spent billions on runway safety over the past five years, the GAO found that the agency’s lack of coordination and leadership, technology challenges, the lack of data, and human factor-
related issues have seriously hindered significant progress on runway safety.
Lautenberg accused the Bush Administration of cutting corners and failing to put passenger safety first. “A safe flight begins and ends on a safe runway, but the FAA is taking too many chances and ignoring too many red flags,” he said. “I plan on introducing legislation to refocus this administration’s priorities to ensure safer runways, safer airports and safer skies.”
On the other side of the House aisle, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), ranking Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, called on Democrats to focus on passing “a critical aviation reauthorization bill” now stalled in the Senate instead of wasting time criticizing the FAA’s efforts.
“It is the height of hypocrisy to criticize the FAA for not quickly putting in place runway and ramp safety technology, data collection processes and staffing studies, while at the same time delaying passage of critical funding for these very initiatives in order appease a special interest group,” he said.
While the number and rate of incursions declined after reaching a peak in Fiscal Year 2001 and remained relatively constant for the next five years, according to the report, preliminary data for FY2007 indicates that the overall incursion rate increased and is nearly as high as the FY2001 peak.
The GAO found that the FY2007 runway incursion rate of 6.05 incursions per one million ATC operations is 12 percent higher than in 2006, and nearly as high as the FY2001 peak of 6.1 incursions per million operations.
Mica said that according to the FAA, the system-wide air traffic controller overtime rate is 1.7 percent, or about 40 minutes per week. If controller overtime is affecting runway safety, perhaps Congress needs to review the FAA’s policy that allows controllers to volunteer for overtime hours, he added.
“While progress has been made as a result of the FAA’s efforts, no human is capable of tracking every aircraft movement at a busy airport without the best available technology. “The best way to further reduce the number of runway incursions is through the use of new technology, such as lighting and incursion warning systems,” he said.
The GAO recommended that the FAA take several steps to enhance runway and ramp safety, including preparing a new National Runway Safety Plan, establishing a non-punitive voluntary safety reporting system for air traffic controllers and increasing data collection and analysis.