With a near runway collision in Allentown, Pa., fresh in their minds, the House aviation subcommittee members revisited the persistent problem of runway incursions late last month.
Just days before the hearing, a Cessna 172 was on a landing roll at Lehigh Valley International Airport (ABE) when the pilot was instructed to exit the runway at the Taxiway A4 turnoff. Mesa Airlines Flight 7138, a CRJ700, already instructed to position and hold on the same runway, then received clearance from the same controller to take off.
During the takeoff roll, the Mesa crew heard the Cessna pilot say that he’d missed the Taxiway A4 turnoff and asked to exit at Taxiway B. The Mesa crew saw the Cessna ahead on the runway and aborted the takeoff at about 120 knots, swerving around the Cessna. The Mesa crew estimated that they missed colliding with the Cessna by about 10 feet. Night VMC prevailed and there were no reported injuries to the 60 people aboard the jet or those aboard the Cessna.
Hank Krakowski, COO of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization, told lawmakers that the event in Allentown was “a human factors issue.” The controller working both aircraft was a trainee and the controller-in-charge was not in the tower cab.
Gerald Dillingham, director of physical infrastructure issues for the Government Accountability Office, testified that “the risk of runway incursions is still high” and the primary causes are human factors issues.
The NTSB is investigating the incident at ABE. The Safety Board has listed runway incursions among its “Most Wanted” safety improvements since the list’s inception in 1990. NTSB acting chairman Mark Rosenker told NBAA Convention News that the probe will take about a month.
Krakowski said that while last year was the safest yet for aviation in the nation’s history, when he testified at an earlier hearing last February the industry had experienced one of the worst quarters for serious runway incursions–10 between October 2007 and December 2007, and two more in January 2008.
“Based on our response to this unacceptable situation, as of Sept. 15, 2008, we are on track to equal or slightly improve on the safest year on record,” the former airline pilot said.
The FAA, as well as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), classifies runway incursions according to seriousness. Category A–which the ABE incident was–are the most serious, in which a collision was narrowly avoided.
Category B incursions are those in which separation decreases, and there is a significant potential for a collision, which may result in a time-critical corrective evasive response to avoid a collision. Category C incidents are characterized by ample time and/or distance to avoid a collision, and Category D is an incident that meets the definition of runway incursion, such as the incorrect presence of single vehicle/person/aircraft on the protected area of a surface designated for the takeoff or landing of an aircraft, but with no immediate safety consequences.
Beginning with Fiscal Year 2008 (Oct. 1, 2007), the FAA adopted the definition of runway incursion used by ICAO. This new definition, which the FAA helped develop, is more inclusive and counts every mistake made on the airport operational surface, even if another vehicle, pedestrian or aircraft is not involved. That method provides more data to analyze trends and improve safety.