Numerous Factors at Play in Runway Safety Incursions

May 10, 2008 01:11 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
Understaffed ground control centers, pilot inexperience, and congestion are contributing to an increase in runway accidents and near-misses, says pilot Patrick Smith.

30-Second Summary

Poor organization and management are contributing to the significant increase in runway safety issues, writes Smith, pilot, creator of and columnist for Salon magazine. In his May 9 column, Smith speculates that the "congested environments" of major airports and a lack of adequate signs and directions on runways are largely to blame.

Other factors include the growing number of "low-time pilots" on runways, whose inexperience can create difficulities on the runway, and significant understaffing at ground control centers. Smith believes that much of runway safety runs on "trust and acknowledgment," and it is this human element, rather than technology, which can be detrimental to safety.

There were 15 “runway incursions” during a six-month period that ended March 30, compared to 8 in that period last year, reported The New York Times April 25. A runway incursion is the “unauthorized presence of a plane, vehicle or pedestrian on a runway,” according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

In 2007, a report by the Government Accountability Office found that air travelers face a “high risk of a catastrophic runway collision.” It criticized the FAA for reducing its runway safety efforts in recent years and raised concerns about air-traffic controllers and fatigue.

In April, a Congolese plane crashed into a marketplace near the runway upon takeoff, killing at least 75 and injuring many more. In 1977, a runway collision on the Canary Island of Tenerife killed 582 people, more than any plane crash in history. A plane that was taking off crashed into another jet that had taken a wrong turn on the runway.

Several airliners have recently come under fire for other safety issues. In March, Southwest Airlines was fined $10.2 million for allegedly operating flights without conducting inspections, and United Airlines found faulty wiring in three of its planes. Earlier this month, United Airlines cancelled 31 flights after it was discovered that it had not done routine checks on equipment.

Headline Link: A Pilot Sounds Off on the Rise in "Runway Incursions"

Background: Criticism and improvements of airport runway systems

Historical Context: Worst runway collision in history

Related Topics: Recent safety issues

Reference: FAA adopts ICAO definition for runway incursions


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