Air Transport World

The stubborn killer: runaway incursion accidents remain a persistent problem.(Airports & ATM)

Three years ago, then-Federal Aviation Administrator Jane Garvey warned that taxiing on the airport surface is the most hazardous phase of flight" as the agency launched a far-reaching campaign to curb what had become the industry's biggest safety issue. Last month her successor, Marion Blakey, cited a reduction in serious runway incursions for the year ended Sept. 30, 2002, (see box, p. 41) as evidence that in the US at least, "we are succeeding in improving safety on the ground."

With an average of one such incident per day at US towered airports and close to one per week in Europe, however, runway incursions still deserve top rank on the safety priority lists. Fatal accidents at Taipei and Milan in 2000 and 2001 that claimed nearly 200 lives demonstrate that, in Blakey's words, "there is much work to be done."

The widespread application of new and advanced technology, it is hoped, will enable the industry finally to get its collective arms around this persistent killer. But improvements in training and human factors research are viral as well, particularly given the time lag inherent in rolling out new airport and cockpit systems and the impossibility of creating a one-size-fits-all solution to each and every runway and situation. Surprisingly, data show that in 89% of incidents weather was not a factor and in 58% of cases pilots simply taxied onto runways or taxiways without clearance.

One of the concerns, according to University of Southern California Prof. Najmedin Meshkati, an expert on human factors in aviation and runway incursions, is that pilots tend to be less focused on the taxi part of the operation. "Naturally pilots are more focused on the takeoff or landing as the most demanding part of the flight. This aspect has been raised many times in my human factors aviation classes by pilots," he warns.

Meshkati lectures at the USC Aviation Human Factors course, the industry's longest-running such program. "We have also found that pilots tend to be more complacent at their home base, whereas a new airport keeps them more alert in the taxi phase," he says. His views are supported privately by pilots who spoke to ATW; they concede that often they find themselves "relaxing" after a landing or thinking about a host of takeoff procedures before lineup.

Another dimension--one that has applications across all phases of flight--is introduced by Robert Helmreich of the University of Texas. He says his research is "finding that when the operational environment is complex or when things are going wrong, the crew performs better when the copilot is flying or taxiing the aircraft. …

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