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Testimony Before the Subcommitte on Aviation, Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, House of Representatives, Regarding Increasing Number of Aircraft Mishaps on Our Nation's Runways
Jim Hall
House of Representatives, Subcommittee on Aviation, Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Regarding Increasing Number of Aircraft Mishaps on Our Nation's Runways, Washington, DC

Good afternoon, Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee. It is a pleasure for me to represent the National Transportation Safety Board today regarding runway incursions at our Nation’s airports and the Federal Aviation Administration’s efforts to prevent such mishaps.

Before beginning, I would like to introduce Mr. James Danaher, Chief of the Board’s Operational Factors Division in the Office of Aviation Safety, whose staff has been involved in the investigation of several major runway accidents that have occurred since 1990.

Mr. Chairman, the Safety Board certainly shares your interest in preventing airport runway incursions, and we commend you and the Members of the Aviation Subcommittee for your initiative in convening this hearing.

As you know, the worst accident in civil aviation history was a runway collision that occurred March 27, 1977, at Tenerife, Canary Islands involving Pan Am and KLM – both Boeing 747 aircraft. That tragedy took the lives of 583 people. Almost 100 people died when two Spanish airliners collided on the runway in Madrid in 1983, and the Safety Board’s concern regarding this issue was raised again in 1985 when two fully-loaded DC-10s nearly collided at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport. Since then we have seen two Northwest Airlines aircraft, a Boeing 727 and a DC-9, collide at Detroit, Michigan, in 1990; an Eastern Airlines Boeing 727 and a Beech 100 collide at Atlanta, Georgia, in that same year; a USAir Boeing 737 and a Skywest Airlines commuter plane collide at Los Angeles, California, in 1991; a TWA MD-80 and a Cessna collide at St. Louis, Missouri, in 1994, and a United Express Beech 1900C and a Beech King Air A-90 at Quincy, Illinois.

As a result of such accidents, the Safety Board recommended improved lighting standards to enhance the conspicuity of aircraft during ground operations. Although the FAA initially agreed with the intent of this recommendation, in March 1997 the FAA advised that it had reevaluated its position and believed that current anticollision light design standards are adequate and ensure that an airplane is conspicuous to other aircraft that are behind it, both horizontally and vertically. The FAA went on to state that it believes that operational experience has confirmed the adequacy of the current intensity and coverage requirements of anticollision lights. The Safety Board disagreed with the FAA’s position regarding this matter, and the recommendation has been classified as Closed—Unacceptable.

As you are aware, the prevention of runway incursions has been an issue on the Board’s "Most Wanted" list since its inception in 1990. Our communications with the FAA and the aircraft operators indicate that incursions that could lead to accidents occur several times each week.

Although we disagree with the FAA’s position regarding the conspicuity recommendation, the Board is aware that the FAA has been grappling with the runway incursion issue, and we are pleased that it has taken some action intended to reduce runway incursion accidents and incidents. For instance, the FAA has:

• issued requirements for air traffic controllers to obtain readbacks from pilots for all hold-short clearances;

• completed the one-time examination of all U.S. tower-controlled airports to determine the existence of any restrictions to visibility from the control tower to the runways or other movement areas;

• sent letters to all flight instructor refresher clinic sponsors requesting that they emphasize the need for pilots to maintain vigilance in monitoring ATC communication frequencies;

• sent letters to all flight standards divisions requesting that information concerning this issue be provided to all known operators of pilots schools and FAA-approved pilot school certificate holders; and

• mandated that all aircraft equipped with anti-collision lights shall have such lights illuminated while operating, unless the pilot-in-command determines that because of operating conditions it would be in the interest of safety to turn the lights off.

However, despite these actions, FAA’s latest statistics indicate that runway incursions were up 19 percent in 1996 compared to the prior year. In 1997, runway incursions have increased 12 percent during the first nine months of the year. Knowing what the devastating results can be from a runway collision, we find this trend disturbing. Since 1990, there have been 5 fatal runway collision accidents involving U. S. air carrier aircraft, resulting in 64 fatalities, and these critical surface incidents continue to occur all too often at our Nation’s airports.

The Safety Board is aware of the inordinate number of recent runway incursion incidents64 at the Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport in Cleveland, Ohio. These incidents, which for the most part have been classified by the FAA as pilot deviations, have been monitored closely by our staff. Most of these incidents have resulted in flightcrews crossing the hold-short line on runway 28 while waiting for departure on runway 23L, and there have also been incidents involving vehicles entering the wrong runway or entering a runway without a clearance from the ground controller.

While the Safety Board views all of these incidents as serious, only one may have compromised safety. That incident, which occurred on January 27, 1997, involved a DC-9 that overflew a commuter airplane on runway 5R after the flightcrew of the commuter failed to turn on the correct taxiway and strayed onto the runway.

Following a rash of pilot deviation incidents that began on October 7th of this year, we requested a briefing from the FAA to determine the magnitude and scope of the problem; and more importantly, what corrective measures the FAA was taking.

The Safety Board learned in two briefings provided by the FAA’s Runway Incursion Project Manager that most of the Cleveland incursion incidents have been occurring on runway 28 which is used for staging aircraft for departure on runways 23L and 23R. While the FAA had taken action to install above ground lights and required that controllers obtain readback of taxi clearances, incursions are still occurring there. The FAA stated that there will be several changes in the taxi routes at the airport for staging aircraft on runway 28, in addition to the installation of in-pavement lighting. All of these additional initiatives have a completion date of November 14, 1997.

Nevertheless, the Safety Board is conducting a human performance analysis of each incident to determine if additional measures are needed. We continue to monitor this situation very closely.

Mr. Chairman, the FAA has made some progress in the installation of the Airport Surface Detection Equipment (ASDE-3) radar systems. However, we remain concerned that their efforts to address runway incursions through technological development fall short of what is needed. Although the latest figures from the FAA now indicate that 27 ASDE-3 systems have been commissioned, and 3 additional systems should be commissioned before the end of this year, except for the installation of an Airport Movement Area Safety System (AMASS) at the San Francisco International Airport, we have seen little progress in the development and installation of AMASS -- designed to alert controllers to an impending surface incident.

AMASS was eventually installed at the San Francisco International Airport following the Safety Board’s investigation of a runway collision on November 22, 1994, at St. Louis, Missouri. Although the Safety Board and Congress were led to believe as early as 1991 that the FAA intended to move forward with the development, installation and final commissioning of this system, it has remained in a proof-of-concept status since its installation. While we are aware that the FAA had encountered unforeseen problems with false targets, known as "multi-path," we nonetheless remain concerned that technical problems with this much-needed system continue, such that AMASS has not yet progressed expeditiously from a developmental to an operational system. It seems noteworthy that despite the continuing part-time use of a pre-production AMASS at San Francisco, that airport was among the top 10 runway airports in the U.S. in 1997 for runway incursions. We have learned informally that controller user reaction remains mixed regarding the system’s effectiveness.

During 1993, the Mitre Corporation, under the direction of the FAA, undertook the task of soliciting from select flightcrews their ideas on how to cope with the airport runway incursion problem, and what site specific tools or techniques they personally used to prevent runway incursion incidents or accidents. This comprehensive study produced a list of about 40 initiatives that Mitre believed would be "doable," cost effective, and readily implemented. Because the FAA had not acted on this study, in 1995 the Safety Board issued a safety recommendation that urged the FAA, in concert with industry, to form a task force to implement many of these recommendations in an effort to reduce runway incursions.

Although the FAA agreed with this recommendation, it was not until October of this year that a roundtable discussion of the runway incursion problem was conducted. While it appears that the FAA is willing to acknowledge that there is a problem with surface operations, there does not appear to be the appropriate level of emphasis given to this area. For example, the FAA’s Runway Incursion Program is without a staff directly under his supervision to actively address this sizable responsibility.

The Safety Board is aware that the FAA, at the urging of the Safety Board, has been testing prototype low-cost ASDE radar systems at airports such as Milwaukee, Salt Lake City and Norfolk. In addition, another new ground loop technology is being tested at Long Beach, California. We applaud these efforts, Mr. Chairman, but the time has come to move forward toward final implementation. Also, the FAA needs to expand its focus on those areas where new technology may not be effective, such as pilot education programs.

We stand ready to assist the FAA in all of its runway incursion reduction efforts. For example, Safety Board staff has been actively involved with the FAA’s Research, Engineering and Development Committee. This committee has been tasked to develop recommended actions for the prevention of runway incursions using completed studies, the most recent Runway Incursion Action Plan, and input from the Runway Incursion Safety Roundtable. We note that members of our staff participated in a similar endeavor during 1991. Thus, we are concerned that the results of these FAA study efforts and action plans have not resulted in more real world changes and improvements in surface operations.

Mr. Chairman, in February 1991 Dr. John K. Lauber, then a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board, stated to this committee that "The Safety Board views runway incursions as one of the most significant hazards to aviation today, and we expect that the potential for a ground collision involving an arriving or departing airplane will increase …." That statement is still true today, and you may be assured that we will continue to urge the FAA to place greater emphasis on the runway incursion hazard.

Mr. Chairman, that completes my prepared statement. I will be pleased to answer any questions you might have at this time.

Jim Hall's Speeches