Lessons from Our Runway Incursion Forum

By Member Christopher Hart

On September 19 and 20, the NTSB held a Runway Incursion Forum featuring some of the industry’s foremost runway safety experts. These experts came from far and wide, and from a variety of aviation associations, companies, research organizations, government agencies, and airports. It was a very thought‑provoking event, and I believe we had the right people at the table to address an increasing trend in the most significant (Levels A and B) runway incursion events.

NTSB Runway Incursion Participants
Member Hart and NTSB staff with Runway Incursion Forum participants.

The aviation industry has proven itself to be adept at tackling challenging safety issues. In the early 1990s, the fatal commercial aviation accident rate that had been declining for several decades began to plateau. Many safety experts concluded that further reduction in the rate was unlikely because the plateaued rate was already exemplary. Nonetheless, concerned that the volume of flying was projected to double in the next 15­–20 years—and with it, if the rate remained flat, the number of airline crashes—the industry began an unprecedented voluntary collaborative safety improvement program to further reduce the accident rate. This program was called the Commercial Aviation Safety Team, or CAST. Amazingly, CAST reduced the flat fatality rate by more than 80 percent in only 10 years.

Perhaps the most difficult challenge that we are currently facing regarding runway incursions is pursuing additional remedies in the absence of an accident. The industry is frequently accused of having a “tombstone” mentality: attempting to improve safety only when there’s a major accident. I applaud the efforts of the FAA, the general aviation community, the commercial aviation industry, and the airports, along with the front-line vigilance of the pilots, air traffic controllers, and airport operators who live and breathe this issue every day, to proactively identify ways of driving down the numbers. It’s a sign of this vigilance that they came together out of our common concern about the apparent turnaround from the previous downward trend in A and B incursions.

So, what did we learn from our forum? First and foremost, the staff who organized this event recognized one of the major lessons learned from the CAST collaboration: that everyone who is involved in a problem should be involved in developing the solution. Hence, we invited pilots, air traffic controllers, airport operators, affected industry organizations, and the regulator (the FAA), as well as those who collect and analyze the data­—in other words, everyone who is involved in the problem—to discuss their perspectives on the runway incursion problem.

Each participant emphasized the need for more and better data: data to help us identify the problems, determine what caused them, develop interventions, and determine whether the interventions are accomplishing the desired result. We need to determine how to collect better data, how to analyze the data more effectively, and, pursuing the collaboration concept, how to share the data more effectively, both with peers and with other participants in the system.

Perhaps the most challenging issues that warrant better data are the human factors issues regarding human limitations and vulnerabilities, and determining how humans can interact most effectively with rapidly advancing technologies. There has been considerable progress in understanding human factors in the cockpit, and it was interesting to hear in the forum about the development of a new program that also aims to enhance our understanding of human factors issues that affect air traffic controllers.

Participants at the forum also discussed several exciting new technologies—in the cockpit, in air traffic control facilities, at airports, and in airport ground vehicles—to help increase the situational awareness of pilots, controllers, and vehicle operators. We heard of many activities by the airport community to address “hot spots,” the places on the airport surface where runway incursions are occurring most frequently. These activities include changing procedures, improving training, adding new technologies, and making major capital improvements to modify airport geometry.

NTSB Runway Incursion Forum
Member Hart leads a roundtable discussion during the Runway Incursion Forum.

Runway incursions are increasing amidst a culture that, in the last 15–20 years, has become more sensitized to their potential danger. What is needed is both site‑specific remedies (due to the uniqueness of every airport) and systemic remedies that address the system’s commonalities. Through their presentations and active participation in our forum, it became clear to me that our forum participants refuse to wait for an accident to begin making improvements.

We heard from multiple participants that about 80 percent of runway incursions involve general aviation aircraft. Although the creation of new collaboration networks, such as the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee (GAJSC), is beginning to bring general aviation stakeholders more consistently into the runway incursion prevention conversation, we learned that the effort to bring all stakeholders to the table must continue, which is a challenge because the general aviation community is very broad and multifaceted.

I am optimistic that government, airlines, airports, and others will follow up on the most important directions that we collaboratively identified in the forum, and that they will continue to develop and deploy new solutions to the complex problem of runway incursions.

The full agenda, speaker biographies and a recording of the forum are available at https://go.usa.gov/xRhpC.

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