Several recent close calls at United States airports show runways are not safe places, but figures announced by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in an October 21 news release say they are safer than they were. The agency attributes the reduction in serious runway incursions to initiatives it has put in place in recent years. Most are designed to cut human error, a problem that responds well to ergonomics-based research and solutions.
As defined by the FAA, a runway incursion is "Any occurrence at an aerodrome involving the incorrect presence of an aircraft, vehicle or person on the protected area of a surface designated for the landing and take off of aircraft."
FAA October figures show a drop of more than 55 percent in serious runway incursions from fiscal 2001 through fiscal 2007. The 24 serious incursions in fiscal 2007 made it the safest year on record, according to the agency.
It has been a common practice of accident investigators to blame runway close calls and accidents on human error—without probing for underlying causes. Ergonomics research shows factors such as worker fatigue from poorly-designed shifts and confusing cockpit interfaces, runway layout and markings are often the underlying cause of human error. Flawed communications systems are also frequent culprits. Safety improvements lie in addressing flaws like these.
No one died in the two most recent runway incursions, but they were vivid reminders of the potential for loss of life. On October 21, a taxiing airplane and a maintenance truck collided at O’Hare International Airport. On September 19, a United Express flight had to brake and swerve at 140 mph to avoid by about 10 feet a small plane on the same Pennsylvania runway. And the worst accident in aviation history happened on a runway. In 1977 two Boeing 747 jets collided on the runway in Tenerife, with a death toll of 583 people.
The FAA initiatives include an analysis of taxi clearances, which found that more explicit instructions were needed from controllers to pilots. The first of six new FAA requirements require controllers to give explicit directions to pilots on precise routes to take from the gate to the runway. Future requirements will cover runway crossings clearances, take off clearances, multiple landing clearances and adaptation of international surface phraseology such as "line-up and wait" instead of the US phraseology "position and hold."
In 2007 the FAA announced it is speeding up the testing and certification process for a class of technology designed to reduce the number of accidents and near misses on runways. The technology, which can display satellite-generated maps in cockpits, promises to help pilots avoid making wrong turns in the runway and reduces the risk of runway collisions. The technology takes an ergonomic approach to reducing one factor common to many of the incidents – confusion.
In 2006 the FAA issued a standard that drew on findings from the Enhanced Surface Markings Project, published in the Spring 2005 issue of Ergonomics in Design. The peer-reviewed scientific quarterly, which serves human factors engineers and ergonomists, described the project as a successful collaboration among human factors/ergonomics (HF/E) consultants, the FAA and aviation industry representatives. The report points out that one of the most complex phases of flight has nothing to do with flying; it is taxiing to and from the gate. The standard, which had to preserve the essential elements of current markings to keep additional training and extra confusion to a minimum, aims to make the runway and taxiway markings conspicuous and usable.
On October 29 the FAA convened the Runway Safety Council, a joint government-industry body that will take a deeper, systemic approach to improving runway safety. Its goal, according to the agency, “is to fundamentally change the existing safety culture and move toward a proactive management strategy that involves different segments of the aviation industry.” It is designed to play a lead role in resolving critical surface safety issues. The Root Cause Analysis Team will investigate incidents from a systems perspective, getting input from airports, operators and air traffic. One focus will be on how human factors contribute to runway incursions and what can be done to reduce human errors. The Root Cause Analysis Team will analyze and attempt to resolve issues in a positive, non-punitive environment, according to the agency.