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Remarks to the New York Airport Management Association, Fall Conference, Rochester, NY
Jim Hall
New York Airport Management Association, Fall Conference, Rochester, NY

Thank you for inviting me to be here today. I appreciate the opportunity to be here at your Fall Conference to meet the members of the New York Airport Management Association and to discuss safety issues of concern to your organization, your airports, and the National Transportation Safety Board.

As you may know, the Board has been the eyes and ears of the American people at accident sites for over three decades. Congress believed, when it established the Board, in 1967, that an independent investigative agency was needed to investigate accidents in all modes of transportation - aviation, highway, marine, rail, pipeline, and hazardous materials; to make recommendations to improve transportation safety and prevent future accidents; and to provide oversight to the Department of Transportation modal administrations.

We involve all of the organizations with an interest in a particular accident - the regulators, the airlines, the airports, the manufacturers, the unions - through what is known as the party system. The primary goal of every investigation is to prevent other accidents from occurring by conducting thorough, independent, and objective investigations. And, to then recommend ways to correct the problems found.

This system has worked well and has helped give the American people confidence in their transportation system. But, maintaining that confidence requires constant vigilance by everyone in the aviation community - the FAA must properly regulate the industry; the airlines and airports must ensure the safety of their operations; the manufacturers must design and build safe aircraft; and the NTSB must reassure the public that there is an independent review of how well those entities fulfill their responsibilities. By design, this interrelationship creates a healthy tension between the participants - and it works.

In its 33-year history, the Board has issued almost 11,000 recommendations to more than 1,250 recipients. To date, more than 80 percent of them have been adopted. Those recommendations have led to countless safety improvements in all transportation modes, such as aircraft collision warning systems; airport wind shear warning systems; passenger vehicle next generation air bags; improved school bus construction standards; pipeline excess flow valves; and better commuter train emergency exit marking. I believe that the American people get a good return on their investment of 22 cents per person that it takes to run our agency each year.

Today, I want to focus on just a few of the safety issues that the Board is concerned about as they relate to airport operations - runway incursions, runway overruns, contract towers, and airport firefighting capability.

The aviation community has had a very busy summer - the number of flight delays and cancellations experienced so far this year are the highest since 1995. The FAA, the airlines, and the airports have a number of initiatives under way by to resolve those problems. And, as we all know -- workable solutions must be found quickly.

Over the past 10 years, aircraft operations (including commercial, commuter aircraft, general aviation, and military) have increased nationwide by 9 percent and 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, the quest for increased capacity cannot 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.

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.

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. We're also investigating a fatal accident involving two small aircraft that collided on the runway, killing four people, last March in Sarasota, Florida.

The issue of runway incursions has been on the Board's list of Most Wanted transportation safety improvements since that 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. The Safety Board continues to believe that the runway incursion problem must have the same level of attention as, and in coordination with, the FAA's programs to increase system capacity and airport utilization rates.

That's why I have been so 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. And, it has 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 encouraged by the aviation community's participation in the FAA's Runway Incursion Summit last June and I'm looking forward to seeing the recommendations from that meeting implemented in the near future.

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.

So far, technological solutions have been long on promise, but short on performance. Since 1991, the Board has been recommending a collision avoidance system for aircraft ground operations.

As a result, the FAA has been working to implement the Airport Movement Area Safety System (AMASS), which would give controllers at the busiest hubs valuable information on potential collisions. However, even though 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. AMASS is six years behind schedule and about $92 million over the original 1993 cost projections. The FAA has indicated that it won't be fully operational for another two years.

The Board has also supported other, more cost-effective solutions for lower activity airports - 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 explore new technologies and methodologies that will help solve the problem, we also need to be open to new ideas and approaches as well.

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 we came very close to another major aviation disaster.

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 the areas, it found that about 40 percent of them were substandard. However, rather than immediately correct the problem, the FAA is requiring runway safety area improvements as part of an airport's overall runway improvement projects.

The Board believes this is inadequate. There are technologies currently available that could help prevent overruns and they should be put in place now. 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. In February 1984, a Scandinavian Airlines DC-10 ran off the end of runway 4R at JFK into a tidal waterway. Twelve of the 176 onboard were injured and the airplane was substantially damaged. In May 1999, an American Eagle Saab 340B ran off the end of the same runway. However, its wheels sank about 30 inches into the arresting material, which brought the airplane to a stop in 248 feet. There were no injuries to the 30 onboard, until one passenger tripped exiting airplane.

According to a Safety Board performance study, had the EMAS not been there, the airplane could have traveled 500 to 1,000 feet beyond the end of the runway, with similar results as the Scandinavian DC-10. The Board believes that the arresting system should be installed wherever full 1,000-foot runway safety areas are not feasible.

The Safety Board has also been examining contract-related issues as they arise because of the controversies that have surrounded the contract tower program including air traffic control (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. The Board has concluded that controller performance did not cause or contribute to either the KA 801 or the Meigs Field accident.

We are still investigating the other two accidents. 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 monitor contract tower issues and issue recommendations as necessary.

Following a number of accident investigations in the last decade that involved emergency evacuations of aircraft, the Board conducted a safety study on the issue and published the results last June. As part of that study, we investigated 46 evacuations involving 2,651 passengers between September 1997 and June 1999. We found that, on average, an evacuation occurred once every 11 days.

One of the issues the Board examined was 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 smaller airports, believe that they don't receive adequate hands-on familiarization training on the airplane types that frequent their airports because aircraft aren't readily available from the air carriers.

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

Before I close, I want to discuss an issue of special concern to the Board - assisting the families of victims of aviation accidents. 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 handled with dignity, and the use of confidential information in the litigation that inevitably followed.

In short, when they needed guidance, assistance, and compassion, they felt abandoned and abused. 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, making the Board the lead federal agency for coordinating federal assets at accident scenes. And, it gave the Board the authority it needed to bring together 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' family members.

The legislation does not require airports to take any specific actions to assist victims' families following an accident. However, many airport managers and ARFF commanders have told us that they need to be better prepared to support family members who might already be at or come to the airport following a crash and they are developing family assistance response plans.

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 in which the disaster occurs. Many airports have been working with the Family Affairs staff to develop plans that incorporate airport and airline emergency plans with local community emergency plans so that they will be able to provide services until airline and federal resources 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.

In September 1999, the FAA issued an Airport Emergency Plan Advisory Circular listing 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 location for a "Friends and Family" reception area in the terminal;
  • improved information flow between the affected airline and the airport;
  • terminal access for airline employees during an emergency; and
  • plan to assist non-tenant airlines involved in a disaster.

Although airports are not required to enact any of these measures - it is not only the prudent thing to do - it is the right thing to do.

Thank you for inviting me to be here today.