Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content
Bookmark and Share this page


Remarks to the American Association of Airport Executives, National Airports Conference, San Diego, CA
Jim Hall
American Association of Airport Executives, National Airports Conference, San Diego, CA

Thank you for inviting me to be here today. I especially want to thank Larry Cox, Charles Barclay, and Spencer Dickerson. I always appreciate the opportunity to meet with the members of the AAAE and to discuss safety issues of concern to your organization, your airports, and the National Transportation Safety Board.

You have all had a very busy summer - the number of flight delays and cancellations experienced so far this year are the highest since 1995. The aviation industry needs to address this issue and stop fingerpointing now for while aircraft operations (including commercial, commuter aircraft, general aviation, and military) have increased nationwide by 9 percent over the past 10 years, they are projected to grow by another 25 percent over the next 10 years.

At the nation's 10 busiest airports , aircraft operations have increased by 44 percent, on average, in the last 10 years, and are projected to grow by another 27 percent in the next 10 years.

Between 1995 and 1999, passenger enplanements rose nearly 16 percent - from 582 million to 674 million. During just the first six months of this year, the 10 major airlines reported a 3.7 percent increase in scheduled flights and a 5.8 percent increase in the number of passengers over last year.

Although this growth reflects a healthy air transportation industry and economy, we cannot allow the quest for increased capacity to compromise safety. Policies, procedures, regulations, and technology must all evolve together to accommodate the demands being placed on airports and air traffic control services - and to ensure the safety of the aircraft using them. Today, I want to talk to you about a few of the safety issues that the Board is concerned about as they relate to your operations - runway incursions, runway overruns, contract towers, and airport firefighting capability.

Between 1995 and 1999, runway incursions increased by 34 percent (from 240 to 321). There were 71 percent more incursions in 1999 than there were in 1993, and the incursion rate per 100,000 flight operations was 56 percent higher in 1999 than in 1993.

Through August of this year, there were 290 incursions - a 39 percent increase over last year. If this trend continues, we can expect to have 400 or more incursions by the end of the year - an unenviable new record.

Runway incursions continue to affect all aspects of aviation. Since 1990, there have been six runway incursion accidents that killed 63 people. In 1999, serious runway incursions involving air transport aircraft occurred at Chicago, New York's JFK International, Los Angeles International, and Providence, Rhode Island. This year, the Board is investigating incursions involving air carriers at Chicago Midway and New York's La Guardia airports among others. And, we're currently investigating a fatal accident in which two small aircraft collided on the runway, killing four people, the past March in Sarasota, Florida.

The prevention of runway incursions has been on the Board's list of Most Wanted transportation safety improvements since the list's inception in 1990. Over the years, we have issued more than 70 recommendations to address the problem - the most recent just last June. Obviously, the Safety Board continues to view the runway incursion problem as a serious aviation safety hazard that must be given the same level of attention as, and in coordination with, the FAA's programs to increase system capacity and airport utilization rates.

I have been pleased to see the increased emphasis and focus that FAA Administrator Jane Garvey has placed on this issue by revamping, revitalizing, and stabilizing the FAA's National Runway Safety Program. As part of that program, the FAA has initiated a number of efforts to reduce the number of surface accidents and incidents.

It has also announced several new runway safety initiatives, including more in-depth investigations of runway incursions and regional awareness meetings for pilots, airport managers, and controllers. I was especially encouraged by the aviation community's participation in the FAA's Runway Incursion Summit last June. I'm looking forward to seeing the recommendations that came out of that meeting implemented.

We all know that there isn't any one solution that will eliminate the problem of runway incursions. It will take a combination of approaches. Over the years, the Safety Board has issued recommendations for a broad range of actions - including procedural changes, educational efforts, and technology improvements.

Procedural changes we've recommended include:

  • Changing air traffic control (ATC) procedures to restrict multiple landing clearances;
  • Modifying the way pilots are cleared to taxi at towered airfields;
  • Restricting the practice of positioning aircraft on a runway at night while awaiting takeoff; and
  • Modifying ATC phraseology used for positioning aircraft so that it is more in line with International standards.

So far, technological solutions have been long on promise, but short on performance. Since 1991, the Board has been recommending the development of a collision avoidance system for aircraft ground operations. Since that time, the FAA has been working toward the implementation of the Airport Movement Area Safety System (AMASS), which would give controllers at the busiest hubs valuable information on potential collisions.

Although the system has been delivered to 33 airports, it's not yet operational at any of them despite an enormous investment in time and money. Currently, AMASS is six years behind schedule and about $92 million over the original 1993 cost projections.

The Board has also supported other, more cost-effective solutions for lower activity airports - measures such as ground loop technology, runway stop-bars, in-pavement lighting, and airport surface sensors using Global Positioning System technology. However, none of these technologies have been implemented at our nation's airports either.

Although we need to continue to explore new technologies and methodologies to solve the problem, we also need to be open to new ideas and approaches as well. And, because a "one-size-fits-all" approach can't work, we need to look for solutions at the airport level not just the national level.

Many airports already have a number of low tech, low cost efforts underway. In addition, airports should ensure that they each have a plan in place that identifies the causes of incursions and can serve as a road map to solve those specific problems.

The Board has also been concerned about runway overruns for a number of years.

On June 1, 1999, an American Airlines' McDonnell Douglas MD-82 overran the runway at the Little Rock National Airport. The captain and 10 passengers were killed and the other 134 passengers and crewmembers were injured. Although that accident is still under investigation, the Board is looking at a number of airport-related issues including the difficulties in locating downed aircraft in and around airports during periods of low visibility and runway safety areas.

Just last March, a Southwest Airlines B-737, with 142 people on board, ran off the end of the runway and almost crashed into a gas station in Burbank, California. We were fortunate that there were no fatalities in that accident, but anyone who saw the news coverage of that event knows how close we came to another major aviation disaster.

Federal standards for air carrier runways require that they be 500 feet wide and extend 1000 feet beyond the end of the runway for construction begun after January 1988. In 1994, the Board recommended that the FAA inspect all Part 139 certificated airports for adequate runway safety areas and nonfrangible objects, such as blast fences, and that it require substandard runway safety areas be upgraded to minimum standards wherever it is feasible.

When the FAA surveyed runway safety areas in 1994, it found that about 40 percent of them did not meet that standard. However, rather than dealing directly with the problem, the FAA is requiring runway safety area improvements as part of an airport's overall runway improvement projects. In February 1999, the Board informed the FAA that we consider this response inadequate because it would involve further delays. We believe that there are technologies currently available that could help prevent overruns and they should be put in place now. For example, JFK has surfaced one of its overrun areas with an arresting material designed to slow an overrunning aircraft - the Engineered Materials Arresting System (EMAS).

We know the system works. Last May 1999, when an American Eagle Saab 340B ran off the runway at JFK. Its wheels sank about 30 inches into the arresting material when it came to a stop. While the investigation of this accident is still ongoing, it is likely that the arresting system helped reduce injuries and, quite possibly, saved lives. The Board believes that the arresting system should be installed where full 1,000-foot runway safety areas are not feasible. The FAA also recently advised us that it has initiated a new survey of runway safety areas.

The Safety Board has also been paying close attention to any contract-related issues that arise during our investigations because of the controversies that have surrounded the contract tower program. Since the program began in 1994, the number of ATC towers staffed by non-FAA controllers has increased by 35 percent. Currently, 194 towers are being operated under the Federal Contract Tower (FCT) program.

Although it is unclear the FAA will expand the program by converting more federally staffed towers to contract towers, more could be added as local airport operators participate in the cost-sharing or "new-start" program.

Over the last few years, the Board has investigated ATC performance in accidents at four contract-towered airports - the controlled flight into terrain of Korean Air flight 801 in Guam and the mid-air collisions at Meigs Field , Waukegan, Illinois and Stuart, Florida. Following its investigations, the Board concluded that controller performance did not cause or contribute to either the KA 801 or the Meigs Field accident.

To date, Board investigators have found no appreciable difference in the level of service provided by contract towers versus FAA-staffed towers. However, as air traffic in the United States continues to grow and activity at smaller community airports increases, we will continue to examine contract tower issues as they arise and will issue recommendations as necessary.

While we are still investigating the other two accidents, Board investigators are looking closely at the tools available to support the controllers, such as radar displays in the tower cabs. All three midair collision accidents all occurred in or near the traffic pattern of the airports, and without radar, the controllers had to rely on verbal position reports from pilots or controllers in other facilities. The FAA has identified 87-towered airports that meet its criteria to have displays of radar information available to the controllers, yet installation has not yet been completed.

The Board has long been concerned about the evacuation of commercial airplanes in the event of an emergency. Based on a number of accident investigations in the last decade that involved emergency evacuations, the Board conducted a safety study on the issue and published the results last June. As part of the study, we investigated 46 evacuations involving 2,651 passengers between September 1997 and June 1999. On average, an evacuation occurred once every 11 days.

During the study, the Board examined the adequacy of aircraft rescue and firefighting (ARFF) guidance and procedures related to evacuations. We sent questionnaires to ARFF personnel involved in the 46 evacuations. Their responses indicated that they needed more hands-on familiarization training to better prepare them to assist in airplane evacuations.

Many ARFF personnel, especially those at some smaller airports, believe that they don't receive adequate hands-on familiarization training on the airplane types that frequent their airports because the airplanes aren't readily available from the air carriers. The Board's study concluded that without hands-on training specific to the airplane types that frequent their airports, ARFF personnel may be hindered in their ability to quickly and efficiently assist passengers during evacuations.

As a result, the Board believes that both the FAA and the industry need to make a concerted effort to make aircraft available to ARFF personnel for training. As a result, our report recommends that the FAA establish a task force to address the issue of periodic hands-on aircraft familiarization training for ARFF personnel at all Part 139 certified airports for each airplane type that serves the airport on a scheduled basis.

Currently, airports which serve scheduled air carrier aircraft with less than 30 seats are not required to be certified, and therefore do not meet Part 139 requirements. In our 1994 safety study on commuter airline safety, the Board recommended that the FAA enhance the safety at airports served by commuter airlines by including all airports served by air carriers that provide scheduled passenger service in the Airport Certification Program. Last June, the FAA responded with a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to revise the current airport certification regulation to include certification requirements for airports with scheduled air carrier aircraft with 10 to 30 seats.

Following our investigation of a 1996 accident in Quincy, Illinois, that involved a United Express Beech 1900 and a King Air B90, the Board also recommended that the FAA develop ways to fund ARFF protection for airports served by scheduled passenger operations with aircraft having 10 or more passenger seats and to require that ARFF units with trained personnel are available during commuter flight operations and are capable of timely response.

Before I close, I want to discuss one other issue of special concern to the Board - the need to assist the families of victims of aviation accidents. Shortly after becoming Chairman in 1994, I became aware of the critical need for such assistance.

During our public hearing on the US Air flight 427, a number of family members shared their experiences to me. They told me horror stories of continuous busy signals from the airline's 800 accident information number, the lack of information, untimely notification, misidentified remains, personal effects being mishandled, unidentified remains not being handled with dignity, and the use of confidential information obtained during the grieving process in the litigation that inevitably followed. In short, at a time when they most needed guidance, assistance, and compassion, they felt abandoned and, in some cases, abused. I later learned that their feelings were not unique; they were shared by family members from almost every other accident.

In October 1996, Congress passed the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act. This act followed the President's executive memorandum the previous month that asked the Board to be the lead federal agency for coordinating federal government assets at an accident scene.

The legislation, combined with the President's directive to six cabinet-level agencies requiring them to provide assistance to the NTSB at accident scenes, gave the Board the authority it needed to bring together various federal, state, and local government agencies to better serve the victims of transportation accidents and their families.

The Act also required the airline industry to take specific steps to mitigate the effects of an airline disaster on the victims and their family members. Unfortunately, the legislation did not require airports to take any specific actions to assist victims' families following an accident. Many airport managers and ARFF commanders have told us that they believe they too need to be better prepared - so that they can assist family members who might already be at or come to the airport following a crash. And, some airports have begun to develop response plans to assist the families and the affected airline.

After Congress gave us this new responsibility, we established our Office of Family Affairs to help ensure that the necessary federal resources are made available to assist families, the affected airline and the community where the disaster occurs. Members of this office are also available to assist you. They have developed an extensive outreach program to assist members of the AAAE and their respective airports. Over the past four years, Office of Family Affairs staff members have made presentations at more than 26 U.S. airports.

Many of your members have also been working with the Family Affairs staff to develop plans that will incorporate airport and airline emergency plans with local community emergency plans. This "joining of forces" will allow airports to support the affected airline, survivors and family members until airline and federal resources can arrive on scene.

Following the crash of American Airlines flight 1420, it became even more apparent that airports needed to be better prepared to assist survivors and family members. As a result, last September, the FAA issued an Airport Emergency Plan Advisory Circular which listed seven areas for airports to consider in order to enhance their ability to assist family members. These areas include:

  • mutual aid agreements among the airlines at the airport, additional coordination with local emergency services;
  • pre-determined locations for a "Friends and Family" reception area in the terminal;
  • improved information flow on scene between the affected airline and the airport;
  • terminal access for airline employees during an emergency; and
  • plans to assist non-tenant airlines involved in a disaster that had been diverted to the affected airport.

Although airports are under no obligation to enact any of these measures - it is not only prudent to do so - it is the right thing to do. The Office of Family Affairs is always available to assist any AAAE member and their airport with direction and guidance on victim and family assistance planning issues. If you want more information, it is available on our website at

Thank you for inviting me to be here today.