The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), in cooperation with the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE) and the MITRE Corp., held the premier International Runway Safety Summit December 1-3, 2009 in Washington, DC.

More than 500 aviation professionals from 17 countries attended the first-ever international gathering of the runway safety community, which focused on the reduction of runway incursions and excursions.

FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman and Capt. Robert Bragg, the last surviving flight crew member involved in the 1977 runway collision of two Boeing 747 jumbo jets at Tenerife, headlined the conference. During a luncheon address, Capt. Bragg, the first officer on the Pan Am Boeing 747 involved in the Tenerife accident, described the chain of events that led to the aviation disaster and offered his unique perspectives. The aircraft accident, the worst in history, took the lives of 583 passengers and crew.

The agenda included discussions and reviews of runway safety’s most critical issues, including human factors, airport layouts, technology, cockpit and air traffic control procedures and safety management systems.

Panels assessed runway safety progress to date, initiatives underway, and plans being made for future environments both in the U.S. and around the world.An exhibit hall showcased the latest services and technologies being used to enhance runway safety.

Hersman got things rolling, admonishing the FAA for moving too slowly on runway safety. She said the U.S. aviation agency has failed to act on runway recommendations the Safety Board repeatedly has made.

Hersman noted that in July 2000 the NTSB issued six recommendations to the FAA to amend various U.S. ATC procedures that, "in the NTSB’s judgment, unnecessarily added to the risks associated with airport surface operations. All but one of those six recommendations are still open with FAA responses in varying states of completion, and the remaining recommendation, regarding limitations on the use of position-and-hold procedures, has been closed – unacceptable action after the FAA declined to make the recommended changes.

"One of the recommendations asked the FAA to require the use of standard ICAO phraseology (excluding conditional clearances) for airport surface operations. In response, we were recently advised that the FAA soon plans to adopt a single change: the use of "line up and wait" instead of "position and hold" to instruct pilots to enter a runway and wait for takeoff clearance. We needed to wait nine years for that?

"It has taken over nine years to achieve partial acceptance of recommendations made in an area, runway safety, that is viewed as critical by both the FAA and the NTSB – and some of the FAA’s recent responses to the NTSB on those July 2000 recommendations have asked for more time for further analysis. We really need to do better than that.

"Hundreds of thousands of passengers pass through the world’s airports every single day. We owe it to them to address safety recommendations and suggestions, regardless of the source, in a timely and effective manner, and put safety improvements into practical use without delay. To do otherwise is to do less than our best work, and in the safety world, doing less than our best work is not acceptable performance, believes Hersman.

On October 19, 2009, a Delta Airlines Boeing 767 completing a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Atlanta was cleared to land on Runway 27R at Atlanta Hartsfield International, but instead landed on the parallel taxiway just north of the runway. It was dark, and visibility was reported at 10 miles.

Hersman said the NTSB’s investigation is not yet complete, but preliminary information indicates that "neither the flight crew nor the tower controllers realized that anything was wrong until the aircraft was rolling out on the taxiway. Luckily, traffic was light at the time and there were no aircraft or ground vehicles ahead.

"Obviously, a heavy jet unexpectedly traveling across the wrong part of the world’s busiest airport at 150 knots represents a serious hazard, and with only a slight change in circumstances this incident could have become a catastrophic accident. It is also noteworthy that because they landed on a parallel taxiway rather than a parallel runway, it is not classified as an incursion. Of course, regardless of how the incident is classified, we are very interested in what cues led a professional crew to believe that the taxiway was their assigned runway, why the controllers were unable to detect the improper operation and intervene, and whether better technology can be of use in such scenarios," she added.

Hersman strongly advocated the use of Electronic Flight Bags. "The FAA announced that it will provide funding for users who agree to equip their aircraft with an Electronic Flight Bag, which includes Moving Map Displays, or an aural runway alerting system. Again, The FAA’s program to encourage users to equip their aircraft with moving map displays is commendable, but it is not a requirement, and the program is limited to no more than $5 million. As a result, the program is not likely to result in widespread adoption of moving map technology," she believes.

FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt noted that only 12 serious incursions were recorded out of more than 50 million operations last year. Only two of the serious incursions involved commercial carriers, he added, terming this "a staggering achievement."

In the future, the issue of human factors will be a crucial factor in improving runway safety, Babbitt continued. He said that the industry will have to "shift away from the forensic investigation of what happened and instead start chipping away at the precursors."

He added that, "When the numerator is 12 and the denominator is 50 million, frankly, there’s no other way we can get there. I won’t go as far as calling these rare events, but we’ve picked off all the low-hanging fruit there is to pick" and we must now focus on gathering "more detailed information" that can be analyzed to preemptively identify airfield risks.

Panelists assessing runway safety in the United States included NTSB Member Robert Sumwalt who said "there is no one magic bullet that will improve runway safety. I believe we can achieve the greatest runway safety benefits through a number of layers of defense." Sumwalt said they include flight crew and controller training and procedures standardization; better signage and markings; and, advanced cockpit technologies, such as moving map displays.

The FAA’s Michael McCormick used the event to unveil the in-house development of the low-cost Runway Incursion Prevention Device destined to be installed in the control towers of as many as 200 (non-ASDE-X equipped) U.S. airports within the next two years. The device will serve as a memory aid for tower controllers. Offering both aural and visual cues, they would remind controllers to check the status of active runways, replacing the cardboard placards in use today.

A global view of runway safety was offered by a second panel that included NATS, IATA, Eurocontrol and NAV Canada officials.

Jem Dunn of NATS UK said incursions are the UK’s biggest runway risk. His organization is implementing defensive controlling techniques, including both mandatory and ‘open’ reporting of such events, clearer phraseology and installation of runway stop bars. Dunn said the three top casual factors all deal with human error. "The thing that will make the next step-change in runway safety is the right piece of technology. A flight deck solution is too far away. We have a problem today and we need something nearer term," he believes.

But automatic dependent surveillance – broadcast may be the next runway safety breakthrough on the horizon inasmuch as technical and operational standards for ADS-B equipment have been approved, paving the way for April 2010 publication of the FAA’s final rule mandating ADS-B equipage in controlled airspace by 2020.

RTCA has approved the minimum operational performance standards (MOPS), and the FAA has already signed the related technical standard orders (TSO). Approval of the MOPS and TSOs gives vendors and operators assurance that the equipment meeting those standards will fulfill the requirements of the ADS-B rule.

ADS-B surveillance services became operational at UPS Airlines’ Louisville, Kentucky, hub this past October, with initial operational capability in the Gulf of Mexico in December. The in-service decision on ADS-B surveillance services is on track for September 2010. Controllers in Philadelphia will begin using ADS-B in February and the system will become operational in Juneau, AK in April. ADS-B is expected to be available nationwide by 2013.

With additional funding provided by the U.S. Congress to accelerate development of ADS-B, an FAA-led team in November completed the first demonstration of airport surface indications and alerts (SURF IA) using ADS-B and a cockpit moving map display.

SURF IA can potentially reduce the rates of serious runway incursions by providing flight crews with alerts and indications about traffic-related safety hazards on the runway surface.

The demonstration was conducted in Philadelphia using a US Airways Airbus A330 with ADS-B equipment supplied by ACSS. A further series of SURF IA demonstrations took place in December, and ACSS is under contract to equip US Airways’ fleet of 20 A330s with ADS-B and Electronic Flight Bags, with funding from the FAA.

Honeywell is under FAA contract to conduct SURF IA demonstrations at Seattle-Tacoma International and Paine Field in Washington State.

The demonstrations will generate data to finalize standards for the SURF IA application. The TSO could be ready by summer 2010.

Perhaps Jim Crites, executive vice president for operations at Dallas/Fort Worth International, best summarized the summit. "Runway safety is no accident. It is a participation sport, if you will, that requires partnering, vigilance and effective two-way communications. It is not just within an organization; it needs to cross boundaries. It requires real awareness and sensitivity by both management and the front-line service providers who live the issues on a daily basis."