AINsight: Blocking & Tackling To Avoid Runway Incursions

 - March 24, 2023, 12:33 PM
runway incursion
(Photo: Transportation Safety Board of Canada)

Last week, the FAA held a safety summit to examine and address recent safety concerns. As expected, much of the discussion centered on runway safety where there was a loss of separation between aircraft. Year-to-date, there have been seven high-profile runway incursions and experts say these “close calls are on the rise.”

According to FAA data, there were 1,732 runway incursion incidents nationwide in 2022. Of these events, 1,084—or 63 percent—were classified as pilot deviations. Compared with 2018 and 2019 (pre-Covid), the 2022 data indicates a small decrease of total runway incursions and pilot deviations. Of these pilot deviations, roughly half are caused by general aviation pilots.

The most recent complete quarterly data available from the FAA indicates 365 runway incursions in the last three months of 2022. That’s down from 401 in the same time frame a year earlier.

Since roughly two-thirds of all runway incursions involve a pilot deviation, I will focus on the basic, fundamental, and proven practices for avoiding runway incursions. Using the mother of all sports analogies, I’ll cover all the “blocking and tackling” necessary for pilots to avoid a runway incursion.

The FAA defines a runway incursion as “any occurrence in the airport runway environment involving an aircraft vehicle, person, or object on the ground that creates a collision hazard or results in a loss of required separation with an aircraft taking off, intending to take off, landing, or intending to land.” 

A pilot deviation on the ground—a surface deviation—includes taxiing, taking off, or landing without clearance; deviating from an assigned taxi route; or failing to hold short of an assigned clearance limit. Common pilot deviations include crossing a runway hold marking without clearance, taking off or landing without clearance, or taking off from or landing on the wrong runway. 

There are several factors or combinations of factors that may contribute to a runway incursion such as a lack of situational awareness, disorientation or distraction, high workload, complacency, weather, confusion over ATC instructions, airport construction (notams), unfamiliarity with the airport, complexity of runway and taxiway layout, or a failure to follow standard operating procedures (SOPs). 

According to chapter 14 of the FAA’s Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge, “It is important to give the same attention to operating on the surface as in other phases of flight. Proper planning can prevent runway incursions and the possibility of a ground collision. A pilot should always be aware of the aircraft’s position on the surface at all times and be aware of other aircraft and vehicle operations on the airport.”

Planning begins before arriving at the aircraft. Pilots should review airport layouts (taxi diagrams) for both the departure and destination airports as part of preflight planning. Check for runway “hot spots” and read the fine print on the taxi chart.

Details such as aircraft weight or wingspan limitations are often only available on the taxi chart and are not available on the airport moving map (AMM). In addition, this is a good time to review notams for information on runway and taxiway closures. Periodically, it is a good practice to review airport signage, taxiway and runway markings, and lighting.

Once at the aircraft and before engine start, pilots must review and brief—in a multi-crew aircraft—the anticipated taxi route. At an unfamiliar airport, it is acceptable to ask ATC what runway to expect for departure.

When ready to taxi, this is where all of the preflight planning will pay off. At busy airports with complex taxi routes, it is advisable to write down the taxi instructions or use the FMC scratch pad to make notes. Remember to read back the taxi clearance using proper phraseology and in its entirety—to include all runway crossings and hold short instructions.

As a technique, another good practice is for the captain to verbalize the taxi clearance to ensure that both pilots understand the instructions. If there is ever any doubt, query ATC for clarification. If needed, request a progressive taxi.

Once underway, both pilots should have taxi charts or AMM displayed and available for reference. A continuous loop—or “in the loop”—technique should be used to enhance situational awareness.

The captain should verbalize (guide) each taxiway and runway as they are approached—for example: “We’re approaching taxiway Delta, next we’ll turn right on Delta.” The copilot should cross-confirm and follow along on the taxi chart—an AMM with “own ship” position is helpful.

A couple of reminders once the aircraft is taxiing: sterile cockpit rules are in effect and no extraneous conversation is permitted. Likewise, limit public address or operational calls while the aircraft is moving, particularly when approaching an active runway.

Also, one pilot must always be “heads up” and actively looking for other traffic. If both pilots need to be heads down, then the aircraft must be stopped.

When cleared to cross a runway, both pilots must ensure and verbalize that the runway is clear of any traffic. Before crossing the runway, pilots should turn on all exterior lights to make sure the aircraft is visible to both controllers and other pilots. At large airports, the tower may be located far away from your location. Remember to never cross a red stop bar without a positive clearance from ATC.

There are several best practices recommended when a “line up and wait” or takeoff clearance is received from ATC. Both pilots should scan left and right to check that the approach path is clear. Use TCAS to determine if there is another aircraft on approach.

Perform a runway verification check to ensure that the runway markings and alignment is correct. Use appropriate external lights to illuminate the aircraft once it is on the runway. It is recommended to use the landing lights only when a takeoff clearance is issued. Also, if your takeoff is delayed after being cleared to take off for more than 90 seconds, advise ATC of your delay.

While most of the best practices discussed here are applicable to any surface operations, there are some specific recommendations for landing and clearing the runway.

As part of the approach briefing, pilots should review the taxi chart to determine a “taxi plan” that includes the taxiway that is to be used to exit the runway, any runway hot spots, expectations to hold short of a closely spaced parallel runway, and a general plan to taxi to the parking ramp. Also during the approach briefing, discuss a plan to identify the correct runway using criteria such as width, lighting, localizer, and so on.

After the landing rollout and at a safe taxi speed, exit the runway to reach a holding position on a taxiway, ensuring that the aircraft is clear of the runway. Once clear of the runway and only when the taxi clearance is issued and understood by both pilots, the after-landing checklist can be completed.

There are several great resources available on the FAA Runway Safety website to aid in reducing runway incursions. To manage risks during surface operations, pilots must be disciplined and execute the basic blocking and tackling that supports the planning, communication, and coordination required to avoid runway incursions. 

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily endorsed by AIN Media Group.