NTSB criticizes FAA action on runway safety

 - December 28, 2009, 6:22 AM

While NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman lauded controllers and pilots for an improving runway incursion rate in the U.S., she took the FAA to task for its dithering over six recommendations on runway safety issued in 2000.

“All but one of those six recommendations are still open, with FAA responses in varying states of completion, and the remaining recommendation, regarding limitations on the use of position-and-hold procedures, has been closed [with] unacceptable action after the FAA declined to make the recommended changes,” she said in a keynote address to open the FAA International Runway Safety Summit last month.

Both the FAA and the NTSB consider runway safety to be a critical issue, but it has taken more than nine years to achieve partial acceptance of recommendations, and some of the FAA’s recent responses to the NTSB on those July 2000 recommendations have asked for more time for further analysis. “We really need to do better than that,” said Hersman.

One of the recommendations asked the FAA to require the use of standard ICAO phraseology for airport and surface operations. “In response, we were recently advised that the FAA plans soon to adopt a single change: the use of ‘line up and wait’ instead of ‘position and hold’ to instruct pilots to enter a runway and wait for takeoff clearance,” Hersman said. “We needed to wait nine years for that?”

She continued, “We owe it to [passengers] to address safety recommendations and suggestions, regardless of source, in a timely and effective manner, and put safety improvements into practical use without delay,” she said. “To do otherwise is to do less than our best work, and in the safety world, doing less than our best work is not acceptable performance.”

Runway Incursions Decline
Hersman told the safety summit attendees that recent FAA statistics show a drop in reported category A and B runway incursions, those incidents where the circumstances indicate a significant risk of collision. Between Fiscal Years 2003 and 2008, there were 24 to 32 category A and B incursions reported each year. In Fiscal Year 2009, only 12 such incidents were reported.

“While this is good news,” Hersman said, “it is too early to tell whether it is an aberration or the first sign of a long-term reduction in the number of these hazardous events.” The NTSB has previously noted that the number of runway incursions typically corresponds to the overall number of flight operations in the system, increasing when the number of operations increases and declining when operations decrease.

“Looking at European statistics for reported category A and B incursions, there is precedent for rapid decreases in the numbers that proved to be short-lived,” she told summit attendees.

In 1999 there were seven reported A/B incursions, but in 2000 there were 41. In 2002, there were 19, but in 2003 there were 63. Since 2003, Europe has reported 48 to 69 A/B incursions each year.

“It will likely take a few years for statistics to confirm that our recent decrease in serious incursions is a trend, rather than an anomaly,” said Hersman. “In the meantime, we must continue our efforts to identify and mitigate the risks.”

In another keynote speech during the three-day summit, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt called the 12 A and B incursions out of more than 50 million operations “a staggering achievement,” but he noted that only two of the serious incursions involved commercial carriers.

“The good news is that all of our pilots–private, commercial and in-between, as well as our air traffic controllers, inspectors, vehicle operators and other safety personnel–are really a cut above,” he said. “While one incursion is one too many, the numbers prove we’ve made a dramatic improvement.”

Human Factors
Babbitt pointed out that the agency and the aviation industry revamped online courses, produced public-service spots and mailed a half-million runway safety DVDs and brochures to pilots. “It’s been a tremendous joint effort across all parts of the FAA and the aviation industry,” he noted.

Babbitt said if the industry wants to reach the next level, it’s got to shift away from the forensic investigation of what happened and start chipping away at the precursors.

“When the numerator is 12 and the denominator is 50 million, frankly, there’s no other way we can get there,” he told the attendees. “I won’t go as far as calling these rare events, but we’ve picked off all the low-hanging fruit there is to pick. My instincts tell me that the place all of this will head is a tricky area: human factors.”

He acknowledged that while technology can help, it’s not going to replace the need for training that’s taking place successfully with partners such as NBAA, AOPA, the Experimental Aircraft Association and the Air Line Pilots Association.
“Let me remind you that only two of the 12 [category] A and B incursions involved commercial carriers,” Babbitt said. “That does mean we still have some work to do in the GA community.”  

Nearly 500 delegates from 20 countries participated in the sessions held in Washington, which included discussions and reviews of such critical issues as human factors, airport layouts, technology, cockpit and ATC procedures and safety management systems. Panels assessed runway safety progress to date, initiatives under way and plans being made for future airport environments both in the U.S. and around the world.