Aviation experts agree that the most dangerous time during any airliner flight occurs while it is on the ground. The twenty-five (25%) percent increase in hazardous runway incidents at U.S. airports during fiscal year 2016 supports this consensus. Many of the lawyers in our firm fly out of Atlanta on a regular basis.
Commercial jet passengers leaving Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta experienced a close call last April. As the jet raced down the runway for takeoff the pilot was forced to brake suddenly which reaches 138 miles per hour. An air-traffic controller cleared the jet to take off from a runway then immediately realized it would cross the path of another plane, which had just landed. The controller quickly told the jet’s pilot to abort the takeoff. Fortunately, there was enough runway left for the plane to completely stop safely. The two airliners were just over a mile apart and at high speeds at that time.
Even political candidates are not immune to runway mishaps. Vice President-elect Mike Pence, his staff, crew and the press pool were all thankful to be safe after the campaign’s chartered plane slid off a LaGuardia Airport runway near the end of the campaign. These are just two examples of tarmac incidents the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) tracks through its Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS).
The Wall Street Journal, citing FAA data, reported that there were more than 1,560 tarmac incidents nationwide in fiscal 2016 and 19 close calls “resulting in significant chances of accidents or collisions that were narrowly avoided.” The number of close calls is up from 15 in fiscal 2015. The total number of reported tarmac incidents increased for the third consecutive year, up from 1,450 in fiscal 2015 and around 1,250 in 2013 and 2014. The data is based on 50 million flights across the country including commercial, private and personal flights.
The number of incidents continues to climb despite the significant efforts over the years to prevent the most dangerous types of incidents. Regulators and industry leaders have adopted proactive measures such as better pilot education and providing more assistance to help airport operators reduce certain risks. Still, researchers are not certain of the cause of the persistent trend. However, they believe that enhanced collection and analysis of data from incident reports is critical to bringing the numbers down.
Airline operators, service companies and unions agree to submit the incident reports to the FAA. To encourage reporting, incident reports can be filed anonymously – without fear of reprimand. While information from incident reports is also paired with corresponding data sent automatically from the aircraft, the quality of incident report data is limited by a witness’s recall and the excessive focus on certain types of incidents.
The FAA investigates all reports to determine the severity of unexpected mishaps. An incident that could affect the safety of the flight crew, ground crew and passengers is deemed “serious.” Incidents are “not serious” if they do not involve serious personal injury or substantial aircraft damage, according to The Atlantic. However, there are no clearly defined characteristics for each category, nor are there specific guidelines for making the determination.
Georgetown University professor Robin L. Dillon-Merrill believes incident data can more effectively spot trends, allowing the causes of the current upward trend of incidents to be identified and corrected. Dr. Dillon-Merrill and her team researched the thoroughness and effectiveness of information obtained from incident reports. She suggests that by simplifying the incident reporting process and expanding the focus of unexpected mishaps to include smaller and “less obvious incidents,” commercial aviation can improve the data authorities rely upon to improve U.S. runway safety.
Dr. Dillon-Merrill advises that maintaining a balance in data collection is crucial, but tricky. Collecting too much data and issuing warnings too frequently could diminish their effectiveness. However, pulling the reigns too tightly around data collection and narrowing the focus only on easily discernible incidents could reinforce dangerous behavior and dissuade efforts to find safer tactics to prevent or correct runway mishaps.
If you need more information on this subject, contact Mike Andrews, a lawyer in our Personal Injury & Products Liability Section at 800-898-2034 or by email at Mike.Andrews@beasleyallen.com. Mike handles aviation litigation for the firm.
Sources: Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic
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