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Remarks to the FAA International Runway Safety Summit, Washington, DC
Robert L. Sumwalt
Washington, DC

Remarks of Robert L. Sumwalt, Member
National Transportation Safety Board
to the
FAA International Runway Safety Summit
December 1, 2009
Washington, DC


Good afternoon and thank you for the opportunity to be on this panel. As Chairman Hersman stated in her keynote address, runway safety has been a long-standing concern of the NTSB and has been on the Safety Board’s Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements since the inception of that list nearly two decades ago.

Chairman Hersman did an excellent job of highlighting the issues from the perspective of the NTSB, so allow me to discuss these issues from my perspective as a NTSB Board Member with more than 30 years of professional flight experience.

With that perspective, I don’t believe there is any one magic bullet to improve runway safety. To achieve the greatest safety benefits, we need multiple layers of defense – defenses such as flightcrew procedures and training, standardization of procedures for controllers and pilots, strong ATC procedures, and airport layout, signage and markings. And, airport technology such ASDE-X, AMASS, Runway Status Lights and Runway Occupancy Lights.

And, one very important layer of defense that I strongly believe in is cockpit technology -  
technology that may not even be available today.

Think about it. For many threats in aviation, cockpit-based technology has served as a powerful layer of defense. Use of ground-based technology may help reduce these threats, but does not totally solve the problem. I think it is important to realize that ground-based technology is not the be-all, end-all solution.

For example, when trying to significantly reduce CFIT, ground-based technology such as MSAW can help, but on many occasions, it has failed to provide adequate warning to prevent an accident. The ultimate solution was installing a cockpit-based technology – TAWS. To date, there has not been a CFIT accident with a functioning TAWS.

Likewise, in dealing with midair collisions, ATC ground-based technology provides conflict alert and has prevented mid-air collisions, however, that layer of defense alone has not eliminated airborne collisions. However, cockpit-based technology such as TCAS has helped to fill in the gaps and by providing an extra layer of defense.

In attempting to prevent windshear accidents, ground-based technology such as LLWS or TDWR has been employed. However, as evidenced in continued accidents such as USAir 1016 accident in Charlotte in 1994, these systems are not always effective in preventing accidents. To increase safety redundancy, cockpit-based predictive warning systems have been added and have been extremely effective.

So, the question is this. In trying to prevent runway collisions, is ground-based technology enough? I believe devices such as runway status lights, ASDE-X and, FAROS can be effective means of reducing runway collisions, but we must not fool ourselves into thinking that they are THE answer. They are not THE answer – they are one layer of defense, but as evidenced by the previous examples, the most effective layer of defense, in my opinion, will be the installation of cockpit-based technology.

As a result of the Comair 5191 accident that claimed 49 lives in August 2006, the NTSB issued a recommendation calling for the installation of cockpit moving map displays or an automatic system that alerts pilots when a takeoff is attempted on a taxiway or runway other than the one intended.

I believe implementation of that recommendation will provide a very important layer of defense in improving runway safety.

In fact, the Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST) analyzed historic runway incursion incidents and estimates that 43 percent of runway incursion incidents attributable to pilot deviations could be eliminated using a cockpit moving-map with airport diagram that showed own-ship position.

Finally, I want to leave you with one other thought. I didn’t think of this myself, but rather, it came from the Flight Safety Foundation (FSF). When we think of runway safety, we often just think of runway incursions. And, indeed, runway incursions are a big issue.

However, as pointed out by FSF, the topic of runway safety incorporates runway incursions, runway excursions, and runway confusion. According to FSF, runway excursions accounted for 29 percent of worldwide commercial accidents involving major or substantial damage between 1995 and 2008.

Like in the previous examples, technology can assist us in improving runway excursions and runway confusion.

So, let’s keep that in mind over the next three days, as well, and as Chairman Hersman stated, as you go home and work on implementation.