While most of the media attention has been on the groundings of thousands of flights and to a lesser degree on skipped airplane safety inspections and botched repairs to wiring, there appears to be another safety issue that really concerns aviation specialists: runway collisions. The chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, Mark V. Rosenker, made this observation:
Where we are most vulnerable at this moment is on the ground. To me, this is the most dangerous aspect of flying.
For the six-month period that ended March 30th, there were 15 serious “runway incursions,” compared with eight in the period a year earlier. Another occurred at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport on April 6th when a tug operator pulling a Boeing 777 along a taxiway failed to stop at a runway as another plane was landing, missing the tug by about 25 feet. You can imagine what would have been the result, had a collision occurred.
The last airliner crash in the United States, a regional jet in Lexington, Kentucky, in August 2006, was a runway incursion because the crew tried to take off on the wrong runway. The problem — defined broadly as the unauthorized presence of a plane, vehicle or pedestrian on a runway — continues despite efforts by the Federal Aviation Administration and airports to improve lighting and signs on the ground, to train pilots and to identify intersections that are particularly problematic. Everyone agrees the number of incursions is too large. While runway collisions are caused almost entirely by human error, they are still mostly preventable. The risk can be substantially reduced with existing technology, ranging from paint on the pavement to electronic warning systems. Some of the more sophisticated electronic systems are commercially available, but are not required by the FAA.
The most recent decision by the agency about a new generation of equipment for navigation and surveillance appears to delay the widespread adoption of in-cockpit warning technology by at least more than a decade. Solving the runway incursion problem has been on the National Transportation Safety Board’s “most wanted list” of safety improvements since the list was created in 1990. But the FAA’s response hasn’t kept pace with the demands for action. In fact, the board rates the FAA’s response as “unacceptable.”
The board recommended in 2000 that the FAA require a collision warning system that would alert crews directly, rather than alerting tower controllers, but the FAA has said that the complexity and expense, in combination, are too great. It has, however, committed to installing more runway status lights, which warn pilots at intersections when a runway is in use. The board also recommended requiring tower controllers to clear planes for each runway crossing, rather than simply clearing a plane to proceed from a gate to a runway end. So far, the FAA hasn’t agreed to that change. Runway safety has loomed larger as a problem partly because other issues have been resolved. For example, in the last decade, all jet airliners have been equipped with systems that make it much harder to accidentally fly into a mountain or collide with another plane. Fire extinguishers and smoke detectors have been put in cargo compartments. Insulation that could feed an in-flight fire has been replaced. But the technology gap that remains between the air and the ground is both striking and alarming.
It’s rather ironic that in the air, huge airliners have navigation systems based on Global Positioning System satellites that locate them in the air. It’s reported that these are not generally linked to surface maps — which would locate them by taxiway and runway — and that’s hard to understand. So as a result, an approaching plane can find a runway end in near-zero visibility, but can then get lost once the plane is on the ground. That simply doesn’t make sense considering the advanced technology that’s available today.
The Times reports that the FAA has announced a plan to embed traffic lights into the pavement in order to stop planes from going into intersections by mistake. And it is expanding use of a system that gives controllers a better view of traffic on the ground. This would involve a radar like screen that may take data from several sources. However, it appears that program will be late and over budget. One product that is commercially available gives warnings of many errors. Honeywell Aerospace makes a runway-awareness and advisory system that combines a GPS receiver with a database of runways and taxiways. It’s pretty obvious that there is plenty of work to be done if runway collisions are to be avoided.
Source: New York Times
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