Danger: Airplane Crossing
Controlling airplanes on the ground is a thornier problem than controlling them in the air.
- By Michael Milstein
- Air & Space magazine, August 2007
(Page 2 of 6)
There is no simple solution for runway incursions because there is no single cause. According to federal statistics, more than half happen when pilots make a wrong turn or fail to stop short of a runway; responsibility for the rest is split between air traffic control mistakes and airport workers going astray when towing airplanes or driving trucks.
“It’s sort of hard to crack the code of why this happens,” says former FAA Administrator Jane Garvey, who made runway safety a priority during her term, from 1998 to 2002. “You find an awful lot of human error. Those are always more difficult because they are unique to the individual.”
Pilots sometimes refer to travel between the runway and an airplane’s parking spot as “the forgotten phase of flight”—and many consider it the most demanding. Sweeping tarmac disappears into the horizon, especially at night, when airfields become a sea of blue taxiway lights. Sophisticated instruments that help pilots navigate in the air offer scant help on the ground, leaving air crews to find their way with little more than paper maps. Pilots must combine what they see out the window with their map of the airport to figure out where they are, at the same time they’re communicating with their airline and ground control and maneuvering the airplane. “There are points when [successful communication] doesn’t happen, and that’s how we end up with incursions,” says Rick Shay, a United Airlines pilot. Experts call the lapses “loss of situational awareness.”
While high-end automobiles now carry color electronic maps that display the car’s location on roads and highways, “we don’t have that in our cockpits,” says Terry McVenes, a US Airways captain who leads safety efforts for the Air Line Pilots Association.
David Foyle, who studies incursions at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, recalls sitting with two pilots in the cockpit of a NASA Boeing 757 at a three-way intersection at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport a few years ago. The pilots couldn’t agree on which way to go. “They stopped the airplane and they started arguing about it,” Foyle says. The airplane was already past signs for the intersection, and the pilots had no way to tell on their own where they were. It turned out neither pilot was right.
It doesn’t help that many busy airports were not designed for today’s booming air traffic, says Paul Erway, the FAA’s acting director of runway safety. As incursions multiplied, the FAA increased training for controllers and launched campaigns to educate pilots. That has helped, says Erway. What’s left are a stubborn few errors that may never be eliminated as long as people are involved.
“Because we’re human, we’re going to make mistakes,” he says. “What we’re looking at now is modifying the system so the inevitable human error doesn’t result in catastrophe.”
Los Angeles International Airport has recorded more than 40 runway incursions since 2001. The cramped airport layout, dating to the 1950s, forces airplanes to cross two inner runways and two parallel outer runways to go between terminals. Aircraft cut across the inner runways roughly 900 times a day. Twice last year, controllers told pilots to stop before crossing and heard the pilots repeat the instructions back, only to see the pilots go across the runway anyway—into the paths of airplanes that were taking off. Almost every day, says Michael Foote, an air traffic controller at LAX, at least one pilot does not follow his instructions.