The Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Runway Safety “has not been fulfilling its mission to coordinate and lead the agency’s runway safety efforts,” says the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) in a stinging new report detailing the FAA’s runway and ramp safety efforts.
As a result, the watchdog agency contends that the US is at a “high risk of a catastrophic runway collision,” an assertion the FAA questions given a decrease in the number of significant incursions over the past six years.
Investigators in the year-long study, requested by House aviation subcommittee chairman Jerry Costello and Senate member, Frank Lautenberg, reviewed runway and ramp incidents in government databases and spoke to a wealth of industry officials including pilots, air traffic controllers, ramp workers and experts selected with help from the National Academy of Sciences.
Chief among the findings is that coordination and leadership issues within the FAA, technology challenges, a lack of data and human factors-related issues are impeding progress in reducing the rate of incursions.
The GAO notes that the preliminary rate for all categories of incursions in fiscal year 2007 was 6.05 incursions per 1 million air traffic control operations, 12% higher than in 2006 and almost as high as the peak incursion rate of 6.1 generated in 2001. The FAA says the numbers are higher because more pilots and controllers are reporting the errors due to an increased emphasis on the topic of late. According to FAA runway safety website, there have been 110 incursions in the first two months this quarter compared to 90 for the entire first quarter last year.
The most serious incidents, so called “A” and “B” incursions, peaked at more than 50 in 2001 but have been averaging about 30 per years since, with 24 logged in 2007, down from 31 in fiscal 2006. There has been an average of nine serious incursions per year since 2002 involving at least one commercial aircraft, the report states.
GAO links a dearth of progress to “an absence of coordination and national leadership” within the FAA’s Runway Safety Office, an entity required by FAA order to perform those functions. Though the FAA in August hired a permanent director for the office, Wes Timmons, the GAO notes that there had been no permanent director for the previous two years.
Moreover, the staff had been reduced by 45% over the past four years, from 66 in 2003 down to 37 in May 2007, in part because contractor funding had been decreased from $4 million per year to $2.5 million per year in the same timeframe.
Lack of leadership was exemplified in one case when agency research officials completed a study for the runway safety office but “could not find anyone to give it to” at FAA headquarters, according to the report.
GAO says the new runway safety office director is planning this month to restart quarterly meetings between headquarters and regional runway safety program manager, a practice that had been suspended since 2006, but “other plans for the office are still being developed.”
In its defence, the FAA says its incursion prevention efforts have resulted in a decrease in category A and B incursion of 55% since 2001. The agency in August rekindled its efforts with industry, launching a runway safety “Call to Action” that among other efforts included comprehensive reviews of safety issues at problematic airports, rollout of new high-contrast taxiway centrelines near runway intersections, reviewing procedures for issuing taxi clearances, and setting up a non-punitive incident reporting system with air traffic controllers, a deal the controllers have not yet agreed to.
Longer term, the FAA is planning to accelerate the deployment of Airport Surface Detection Equipment Model X (ASDE-X) to the 35 busiest US airports by early 2011 to aid controllers in catching incursions before an accident occurs. ASDE-X, which uses a combination of radar and other surveillance technologies to alert controllers of potential collisions on the airport, is currently operational at 11 airports.
GAO says those systems may not be functioning as designed however. The report details an FAA internal audit published in April concluded that ASDE-X and an earlier radar-based incursion aid called the Airport Movement Area Safety System (AMASS), are not providing “consistent information to controllers, creating a lack of confidence in the system.”
The FAA however maintains that false alarms and false targets are a function of the physical layout of an airport and the trade-off between the desired warning time and the ability to detect an aircraft or vehicle versus the number of false alarms or targets.