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Friday, March 30, 2007

Low-Tech Solutions to Provide Improved Runway Safety

While high-tech solutions now being tested around the country promise to put runway incursions into the same “solved” category as Controlled Flight into Terrain, Wind Shear and Mid-Air Collisions, it was the low-tech solutions that speakers at last week’s NTSB runway safety forum said offer more immediate results, not the least of which was NOTAM reform. Indeed, the Air Transport Association (ATA) said there is no “silver bullet” to prevent runway incursions, calling for the implementation of other measures since many of the coming technologies are not mature, nor foolproof.
NOTAMs, said Regional Airline Association (RAA) Vice President-Technical Services Dave Lotterer are overwhelming pilots, accounting for the most paper in the dispatch release and the most time consumed by crews in pre-taxi operations, particularly for short ground stops. In addition, he said the format is difficult to convert to an electronic format for Electronic Flight Bags.
His main message, in fact, was the lack of a digital infrastucture for NOTAM's and charting within the FAA. “That needs to be addressed before the FAA pushes too far forward on moving maps,” he said, cautioning before adding more technology to the cockpit the FAA must improve current processes and procedures. “While the press picked up the charting problem, the NOTAM problem is even worse.”
The use of moving map displays for ground operations lacks reliability unless the charting process can be improved adding, “there is a major disconnect between airport operators and charting suppliers. ATC uses government-produced charts, while operators use commercial charts.”
While press and other reports seem to indicate regionals are involved in the vast majority of runway collisions and serious incidents, statistics of major accidents and incidents released by NTSB during the conference, indicate that general aviation and major carriers have been involved in far more than regionals. The FAA indicated the perception may come from the fact there are more regional aircraft in the system now. Even so, statistics showed that there were 31 runway incursions involving regional equipment in Fiscal 2005, only one of which was the severest Category A or B. A year later there were 49 such incursions involving regional aircraft, three of which qualified for Category A or B.
A regional – SkyWest (SKYW) – was, however, involved in the nation’s deadliest accident which killed 34 as a USAirways (LCC) 737 landed on top of a departing SkyWest Metroliner in 1991. A United Express also collided with a Beech King Air at Quincy, Ill, killing 14. The NTSB cited ATC error as the probable cause in the SkyWest accident and pilot error on the part of the King Air for the Quincy accident.
NTSB shows runway incursions have been on the rise in 2003 and continue to rise.

While the meeting centered on runway incursions, Flight Safety Foundation said runway excursions – crashes as aircraft left runways – were far deadlier and should receive more focus. Foundation Fellow Earl Weener, PhD, cited data collection as a real problem since runway incursions are required to be documented but incidents involving runway excursions and runway confusion are only documented if they involve damage or injury. Even so, he produced two charts outlining the growing problem, despite the lack of universal data on incursions, excursions and confusion.

1995 – 2006
1,237 Total Accidents
                                            Number     Percent of Total
Incursions:                                 10                 .8%
Excursions:                             363             29.4%
Confusion:                                 4                 .3%

2002 – 2006
512 Total Accidents
                                    Number (Fatalities)         Percent of Total Acc
Incursions:                             3 (17)                             .6%
Excursions:                          13 (283)                         2.5%
Confusion:                             1 (49)                             .2%

Weener echoed all speakers when he cited airport design, lighting, approach aids, runway markings and signage, runway clearing and cleaning, runway condition measurement, and safety areas as issues to be addressed to reduce confusion and increase safety. He also said pilots are often thrown off by last-minute runway changes in what he called “slam dunk approaches.”

Training was at the top of many agendas with one NTSB official pointedly asking RAA' Lotterer about regional pilot training. The official seemed to suggest that regional pilot training is inadequate when the message throughout the day was more training was needed for all players – pilots, controllers, mechanics, airport workers and airport operators. Indeed, every speaker outlined the enormous efforts by industry and government to address safe airport operations including web-based lessons produced on the Aviation Safety Foundation’s web site which received 20,000 hits with the vast majority actually completing the course. After Comair’s Lexington accident last August, the Foundation sent out 200,000 CDs of the course and follow up surveys indicate that 70 percent or 140,000 pilots, completed the course.
Lotterer missed a huge opportunity to educate both the assembled general assignment press and what seemed to be an official who is uninformed about regional airline operations and regulations. Instead, Lotterer stumbled over the answer, failing to educate the official that, with the advent of the commuter rule in 1997, the training standards for regionals are the same as the highly-sophisticated training for major carriers albeit on different aircraft. The rule required regionals to spend millions in new training and technology. In addition, he missed an opportunity to tout the industry’s safety record which rivaled the major carrier record both before and after the commuter rule became effective.
To be completely fair, perhaps the official did not pose the same question to ATA because it had produced a detailed chart of 10 industry efforts at training including for air traffic controllers. The initiatives resulted from an in-depth study of runway incursions by the Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST) which issued a number of safety enhancements dealing with controller terminology & training, pilot training aids, signage, paint schemes, and moving map displays all of which have either been completed or are in the process of completion.
However, Lotterer also provided an outline of industry’s many runway safety initiatives including training adopted by regional airlines for both mechanics and pilots. Lotterer suggested simplifying aircraft taxi routes and called for avoiding runway crossings whenever possible, adding operators should take a slightly longer route if fewer runway crossing can be avoided.
“Training is a valuable control to avert runway incursions but because of the variables in conducting ground movements it can't possibly address all of the hazards and therefore has its limitations,” he said. “The key to reducing runway incursions is to reduce the variables such as standardization of airport markings and procedures and adherence to standard operating procedures.”
Indeed, controller terminology and communication were cited as two of the greatest problems resulting in misunderstandings. In addition to phraseology issues, ATA also cited embedded “hold short” in a clearances and instructions to follow other aircraft that have already crossed active runways. It also recounted communication congestion resulting in hear-back confusion, taxiway/runway confusion where large paved areas have little distinction or non-standard signage/markings/lighting. Finally, ATA mentioned loss of situational awareness such as following the wrong aircraft because of type/livery confusion and low visibility or snow-covered signs/markings.

Moving Map
In addition, while FAA’s recent promise to streamline certification of a moving map technology that, combined with GPS, displays a pilot’s “own ship” position would help, most speakers questioned it, including Lotterer. He questioned whether the display map technology will ever be considered as more than just an aid for ground operations and whether such “heads down” technology is best for safety. He also questioned the accuracy of the display as well as its redundancy.
The technology, announced two days prior to the NTSB meeting, would help pilots know they may not be in the right place, as happened with Comair. Speakers however, said it falls short. First, NTSB is looking for more, including a direct cockpit conflict alert of impending disaster since the majority of conflicts have been resolved by sheer luck, rather than the slow and antiquated controller alert now in play. In addition, it would not display the position of other aircraft, deemed critical to making a big difference in the runway incursion rate.
ATA said most moving map displays are designed for situational awareness rather than navigation and said the ideal display would keep the pilots “heads up” and would be a low-cost interface with flight management technology. It also indicated it should avoid alerts that compound the aural environment, which was echoed by RAA.
FAA cited two interested manufacturers for the portable device, including Jeppesen and Aviation Communication & Surveillance Systems. In its announcement conference, FAA said manufacturers are loathe to spend the $200,000 per unit required for machines that would meet high-certification requirements for flight operations because there is not a market for it. Citing manufacturer reluctance, FAA decided to isolate the ground component and streamline certification of a simplified device that could be available this summer.
Regional airlines welcomed the FAA’s runway safety initiative. The simplified Electronic Flight Bag component would replace the old eyeball method of identifying the runway. FAA believes the cost of certification for surface operations could drop to as little as $20,000 per unit — about one-tenth the original anticipated cost of EFB certification for ground and air operations.

End-Run Taxiways
Speakers also urged expansion of an end-around approach to cross-runway taxiing. The practice is set to begin at Atlanta Hartsfield this month. The $42 million, end-of-runway U-turn-like facility is expected to increase both safety and capacity. It is less than a mile that not only reduces taxi-time but promises to save millions in fuel costs annually. It is official known as Taxiway Victor and is the first such facility in the country and should make a dent in the performance statistics of airlines like Atlantic Southeast, often at the bottom of the DOT’s consumer reports.
The unique end-run on cross-runway taxiing will impact about 70 percent of operations on Atlanta’s two north runways when it opens this month. Currently, said the report, those landing on the northernmost strip must await clearance to cross the active inner runway with occurs up to 700 landings a day. The end run will replace those waits as aircraft go to the end of the runway and make a sharp left and then turn right onto the airport’s new 4,200-foot taxiway that dips 30 feet below the runway before the gate area. The dip maintains separation standards for inner runway operations. FAA studies say the facility will result in a 30 percent improvement in overall runway "efficiency” and annual fuel savings between $26 million and $30 million.
While speakers applauded several initiatives now in testing by the FAA, they criticized the late deployment of Airport Movement Area Safety System (AMASS) and Airport Surface Detection Equipment, Model X (ASDE-X) saying they did not go far enough in providing protection at all scheduled service airports. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) indicated the technology produced too many false alerts, rendering its operationally questionable. It also indicated that the number of false alerts require the function to be turned off in bad weather, rendering it useless. The FAA has installed AMASS at the nation’s top 34 airports. While AMASS is radar-based, meaning signals might bounce off rain and fog, ASDE-X integrates data from a variety of sources, including radars and aircraft transponders, to give controllers a more reliable view of airport operations. ASDE-X capabilities will be added to many of the sites that already have AMASS, as well as other busy airports.
In a throwback to the early days of aviation when stop lights were installed at runway and taxiway intersections, FAA said it is testing a system of automatic stoplights at Dallas/Fort Worth. However, the agency is only now building its business case for deploying the technology at airports. The limitation is that it will only be deployed at runways that have ground traffic sensing systems. One such system must be turned off in heavy weather. These Runway Status Lights tell pilots whether or not runways are clear. Surface and terminal surveillance systems, such as ASDE-X and AMASS, detect the presence and motion of aircraft and vehicles on or near the runways; the Runway Status Light safety logic then assesses any possible conflicts with other surface traffic.
Red, in-pavement runway entrance lights are illuminated if runways are unsafe for entry or crossing, and red, in-pavement takeoff hold lights signal when a runway is unsafe for departure. The operational evaluation was completed in June 2005 at Dallas/Ft. Worth, showing promising initial results. The lights were compatible for a busy airport, there was no increase in controller workload, and the lights proved useful to pilots. An enhanced lighting configuration is being installed on a second runway at Dallas-Ft. Worth this year. The evaluation of Runway Status Lights with AMASS began last year at San Diego Lindbergh Field.
The agency is using Long Beach as a test bed for an emergency lighting system which would warn an approaching aircraft by flashing if the runway were occupied. The Final Approach Runway Occupancy Signal (FAROS), is designed to prevent accidents on airport runways by activating a flashing light visible to landing pilots to warn them that the runway is occupied and hazardous. In addition, a new compact, high-precision, short-range radar is being tested at Spokane which will distinguish between aircraft, ground vehicles and even animals.
The problem, according to the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) is that there are lots of ideas and lots of tests but the organization wants these technologies deployed sooner rather than later.
Frequently criticizing FAA for ending the participation of controllers in major safety initatives, Darren Gaines, NATCA air safety investigator, cited controller fatigue as a major issue for his group. He called for setting work-hour limits for controllers and said it is not unusual for controllers to work six to seven day weeks with the current staffing shortages. He also cited ATC procedures such as Taxi Into Position and Hold and confusing phraseology and instructions as being contributing factors in a number of incidents. He called for clearing an aircraft for only a single operation to avoid confusion with complex, multiple clearances.
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