Calling wrong-surface events one of the top five hazards of the National Airspace System, acting FAA administrator Dan Elwell is urging government and industry leaders to make the issue a top priority. In prepared remarks for a recent FAA Safety Summit on this issue, Elwell noted that 1,100 such events have occurred nationwide in the last three years alone.
A wrong-surface event involves an aircraft taking off from or landing on a taxiway, wrong runway, or wrong airport. Recently the number of reported wrong-surface events has increased on arrivals, up 47 percent since early 2016, Elwell said. “The risk is particularly great for general aviation, where we’re seeing a much higher rate of incidents,” he said.
Highlighting the summit, NBAA pointed out that general aviation aircraft were involved in 86 percent of the 596 landing/approach wrong-surface events from Fiscal Years 2016 to 2018. More than 90 of the events occur during daylight hours and most with visibility greater than three miles, NBAA further said.
One of the incidents cited at the summit was the Aug. 27, 2006 crash of a Comair regional jet that took off from a wrong runway in Lexington, Kentucky, NBAA added. The runway was too short and the crash resulted in 49 fatalities.
NBAA Safety Committee member Mitchell Serber outlined a number of issues and the complexities involved wrong-surface events. “It strikes me as a little bit odd, that here we are 12 years later and still talking about some of the same issues the industry has known about for a long time,” said Serber, who is chief of safety-executive flight operations, The Boeing Company. “If you break it down, it’s man, machine, environment, and a lot of these things are things that can happen at any airport, to any pilot, in any condition—day, night.”
Mark Baker, a keynote speaker at the safety summit, cited in his prepared remarks loss of situational awareness as a root cause of many events and stressed technology can make a significant difference. Pilots are flying safely with a range of technologies from non-TSO’d avionics to ADS-B, because they have more information to make informed decisions, Baker said, adding that technology can further help situational awareness and safety on the runway.
He backed the promotion of existing and emerging technologies from iPads to head-up displays in combatting wrong-surface events. AOPA Air Safety Institute executive director Richard McSpadden also pointed to training, culture, and proficiency to helping address the issue.
“In most of the cases we’re discussing, there weren’t any injuries or damage. That’s good news. But it still tells us that something in the system needs our collective attention," Elwell said, stressing the need for collaboration.
The aviation community has collectively tackled other risks, he said, pointing to the 2015 call to action on runway safety that involved a Runway Incursion Mitigation Program. This led to a partnership with industry and airports, which incorporated tangible results such as new procedures and taxiway configurations. And the results are significant, he added, noting the number of incursions decreased by 97 percent at airports where mitigation projects were put in place.
“That’s what happens when the FAA and its partners take on the tough challenges,” he said, and added of wrong-surface events, “I’m asking each one of you to make this a priority. We need everyone working in and around the industry to renew their commitment to preventing wrong-surface events.”