Reducing runway incursions

Posted: 31 July 2007 | Richard Taylor, Head of Air Traffic Standards, CAA | No comments yet

Those entrusted with the safety of our aviation industry, frequently draw up lists of the most likely causes of a major incident. Over the past few years, runway incursions have moved closer to the top of these lists. Regrettably, this is not a new issue – the world’s worst aviation accident, at Tenerife in 1977, involved a runway incursion.

Those entrusted with the safety of our aviation industry, frequently draw up lists of the most likely causes of a major incident. Over the past few years, runway incursions have moved closer to the top of these lists. Regrettably, this is not a new issue – the world’s worst aviation accident, at Tenerife in 1977, involved a runway incursion.

The official ICAO definition of a runway incursion is “Any occurrence at an aerodrome involving the incorrect presence of an aircraft, vehicle or person on the protected area of a surface designated for the landing and take-off of aircraft.”

In the case of the Tenerife disaster, one aircraft began its take-off run while the other was turning onto the runway ahead of it. The visibility at the time was down to 300m in places. 583 people were killed.

Although serious runway incidents are very rare and accidents even rarer, runway incursions are today among the top target areas for aviation regulators. In an ideal world we would aim for a scenario where no aircraft or vehicle ever entered a runway without permission, or in error.

Clearly such an ideal situation would be exceptionally difficult to achieve, but the UK, in partnership with Europe and the rest of the world, is striving to reduce the number of incidents to as low as practically possible.

The action plan in the UK focuses on people, technology and procedures with emphasis on training, education and publicity.

The UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) redoubled its efforts to reduce incidents over five years ago and established a Runway Incursions Steering Group. This Group draws on the knowledge and expertise of CAA staff and airlines, air traffic service providers and airport experts.

A number of sub groups look in more depth at issues such as technological initiatives, training, publicity and collecting and analysing the data from incidents, to establish trends and develop mitigations.

As you would expect, once the profile of runway incursions was raised, the number of reported incidents increased. We’ve seen this happen with other safety issues such as level busts and airspace infringements where despite our open reporting culture in the UK the issue may well have been previously under-reported.

Reported incidents rose from 74 in 2003 to 127 in 2004 and 166 in 2005. However some of the group’s measures had started to reduce the number, and this was confirmed in 2006 when incursions fell by seven per cent to 154. Of those, 70 per cent were assessed as involving no risk.

So what had the group achieved that could have helped to reduce the rate of incursions?

The first success was publicising the issue with industry. A series of posters, leaflets and other publicity material – all featuring specially designed runway incursion branding – made those involved much more aware of the issue and they then set about tackling these issues, as the increase in reporting showed. We also know the educational impact of the material has helped, as it specifically targeted certain sectors of the industry (i.e. airside drivers, pilots and air traffic controllers).

The new reporting levels of course meant extra work for the data group; as well as collecting the data they created a more precise picture on the more frequent causes of incidents, which could then be tackled more effectively (e.g. by identifying developing trends which were addressed by proactive measures before they became genuine risks to safety).

Moreover, this analysis of data showed that many incidents resulted from those involved failing to follow standard procedures. The Group therefore targeted drivers, pilots and air traffic controllers, outlining the importance of following procedures accurately. Emphasis was placed on specifics, such as best practise while taxiing and a CAA requirement for aircrew to be assessed on radio telephony standards during recurrent training was introduced.

Meanwhile, the technology sub-group has assessed a variety of potential options including a report from an external contractor which revealed a surprisingly large number of products, all aimed at mitigating runway incursion risk. The review concluded, perhaps not surprisingly, that systems giving an immediate enhancement to the situational awareness of pilots and direct warnings in ATC towers and cockpits of a potential impending incursion offered the greatest safety benefit.

The willing, positive involvement of the UK airport industry shows how unified the UK is in tackling the issue. Work here has involved more comprehensive training for airside drivers, including a special training package devised by the UK Airport Operator’s Association and several airports have changed taxiway systems and Low Visibility Procedures to further reduce the risk of incursion.

Most airports have now developed local runway safety teams (in line with a Eurocontrol initiative) who assess the safety risks, marking particular physical areas of concern as ‘hot spots’ and then take action to eliminate the risk. Recent statistics show that incidents appear to be on the rise at regional airports, whilst they are reducing at the major international airports. We have therefore devised some specific publicity aimed at general aviation pilots.

All of our work and findings have been shared with Eurocontrol to help feedback into the bigger picture. Work continues on a number of areas including a study into continuous 24 hour operation of runway stop bars and a pilot’s organisation proposal that aircraft switch on high intensity lights when approaching or entering a runway.

Ultimately, as with all safety related activities involving human beings, we may never see a total eradication of runway incursions. We will continue to strive for the lowest level of incidents possible and target the trends or observed serious incidents that pose the greatest risk to safety.

The CAA’s Steering Group has been a model example of how a regulator and the aviation sector can work together. This level of partnership is also vital on an international scale, as we seek to introduce common effective technological solutions and best practice protocols and safety measures.

Although runway incursions may continue to be high on regulators’ lists of safety risks for some time, the work undertaken to tackle the issue in the UK will hopefully see it featuring less frequently in the future.

Richard Taylor

Richard Taylor is Head of Air Traffic Standards at the UK CAA’s SRG. He joined the CAA (when NATS was still part of the Authority) in 1973 as an ATCO Cadet and served as an operational controller at Edinburgh in the late 1970s and at Heathrow throughout the 1980s. He then worked as Manager of Operations and Training and then Manager of ATC at Heathrow before moving to West Drayton as Watch Manager, Terminal Control. He joined SRG as Head of ATSSD Operations in 1998 and took up his present position in 2004.

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