Reducing Airport Accidents: turning safe into safer

The industry has been working hard for many years to prevent runway incursions and excursions. (Key Archive)

“Airport operations and accidents are Siamese twins, joined together at birth for life – unfortunately!” says Inderjit Singh, aviation analyst,  former Airport Director of New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport (IGIA) and an ICAO Consultant.

The industry has been working hard for many years to prevent runway incursions and excursions. (Key Archive)

Where safety standards are high, they can rise even further.  But the rewards can be greater for raising them where they remain low.
 
Aviation safety figures continue to improve, but the improvement rate is slowing down.  Certainly part of the slowdown, as I see, is the result of the law of diminishing returns.  Is there anything left, then, for the commercial air transport industry to do to make safety better without the need to invest big money for small returns?  Plenty, as I see – it is an ever-evolving process.  Even where safety standards are already good, the industry is still working with organisations, such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), to refine safety strategies to produce further improvement.
In 2006, a Bombardier CRJ100ER with 50 people on board was lost in the USA because the crew mistakenly tried to take off from the wrong runway, which was too short.  The USA – although it is not alone in this respect – still has definite problems with its runway-related safety aspects, despite the fact that it recognised the issue and began an awareness and education programme to improve the situation about a decade ago.  Apart from the CRJ accident, there were four other runway incidents in the USA in the same year and several in the following years, any one of which could have ended in disaster.  In this regard, a Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST) was set out to specifically identify the accident categories and take remedial actions.  Although they did not hit their target of reducing the USA’s commercial fatal accident rate by 80% in ten years, their achievement of reducing it by 63% is impressive.
At the turn of the century, Boeing estimated that if you spent eight hours a day, seven days a week on a commercial jetliner in the US, you would be more than 2,000 years old before you encountered a fatal accident.  Even then, you would have a 50% chance of survival.  This may have been true a few years ago but if nothing is done to improve that high level of safety, by the year 2030, we will be seeing one major accident every other week – globally speaking.
An aircraft designer and manufacturer can push so far, and not beyond, to make commercial aviation safe on the ground.  Improving on commercial aviation’s already good safety record in the future would need a new doctrine in light of the shifting global realities – an exponential increase in the number of high-speed/high-density aircraft landing and taking off at over-congested airports in the developed world and the increasing aviation activities in the emerging economies.
A hot topic in the contemporary air transport industry, the concept of a ‘smart airport’ is not new.  Put simply, it entails the smart use of technology and innovative measures within the airport environment to improve qualitatively both the aircraft operations and the passenger experience.  The phrase ‘smart airport’ has been around for a number of years, but with current innovation and upgradation in a number of technologies, I believe that the vision is now evolving more rapidly.
 
Benchmarking a Smart Airport
According to a survey, on being asked what makes an airport a ‘smart airport’, there has been a multitude of responses varying in content and meaning across the spectrum, amongst the different stakeholders in the airport system.
Sample this:
• “Good passenger and aircraft navigation, especially for transfer/transit situations”
• “Pro-active planning for passenger and airliner disruption situations”
• “A painless transition through the airside-terminal building-landside and vice versa”
• “Real-time responses to changes in vehicular and aircraft flow on the tarmac”
• “One that is responsive to travellers’ needs via wider use of IT”
• “Seamless check-in, immigration and security screening”
• “Real-time services to customers and minimum time of clearance”
• “One that maximises automation to make the airport experience exceptional”
• “Leveraging smart technology to provide seamless customer experience”
• “Efficient queue-less self-services achieved by IT mobile technologies”
• “Intelligent, efficient, error-free automated baggage handling”
• “Customer orientation in all fields, ie routes, infrastructure, services”
However, the response from an overwhelming majority of aviation professionals has been – “One that is best in class for safety”.  Not surprisingly, safety is the most important virtue quoted amongst all the items in the wish list.  Unfortunately though, airport operations and accidents are Siamese twins – joined together at birth for life.
 
Best in Class for Safety
An airport’s worst nightmare is when disruptions hit its operations.  The safety of an airport is jeopardised when disruptions occur due to incidents and accidents on the airside, ie its runway, taxiways and the apron in the course of normal operations.  I shall, however, exclude aviation tragedies caused on the ground at airports by sabotage, terrorism and military actions – 119 commercial aircraft destroyed since 1980, from the scope of this article.
Global airport safety statistics show that amongst the various incidents/accidents on the airside of an airport, runway incursions and runway excursions are the most common type, followed closely by the phenomenon of runway confusion.
 
Runway Incursions
Runway incursions take place when aircraft or airport vehicles move into positions where they could compromise the safety of other aircraft/vehicles.  The ICAO and FAA records three types of runway incursions: Operational Errors; Pilot Deviations; and Vehicle Deviations.  All three of these categories are predominantly based on human error and a loss of appropriate separation between aircraft and/or a vehicle.  An Operational Error is when an air traffic controller inappropriately clears an aircraft or vehicle into a situation that results in a collision hazard.  A Pilot Deviation is when a pilot moves an aircraft into a position, without air traffic control approval, that leads to a loss of separation.  Vehicle Deviation is one where a vehicle enters a runway without air traffic control approval that leads to a collision hazard.
Runway incursions are one of the major factors affecting flight safety.  The deadliest accident on ground in aviation history, with a total of 583 fatalities, occurred on March 27, 1977, when two Boeing 747 passenger aircraft collided on the runway of Los Rodeos Airport (now known as Tenerife North Airport) on the Spanish island of Tenerife.
KLM Flight 4805 and Pan Am Flight 1736 were en route to Gran Canaria when a bomb exploded at the airport – consequently they were diverted to Tenerife on a neighbouring island.  A threat assessment was carried out at Gran Canaria and because it was feared there could be another explosion, operations at that airport were suspended.  This meant that more aircraft arrived at Tenerife and had to occupy the taxiways because of the limited number of parking bays available.  The problems were further compounded when dense fog developed at Tenerife, reducing visibility and affecting its operations.
When the airport at Gran Canaria finally reopened after a few hours – the original two diverted 747s at Tenerife were directed to taxi on the only runway in order to get into position for takeoff – their taxiway having been blocked by other diverted aircraft.  Due to the fog, neither aircraft could see the other, nor could the controller in the tower see the runway or the two 747s on it.  In the absence of ground radar, the controller could only identify the location of each airplane via reports over the radio.  As a result of several communication gaps, the KLM flight attempted to take off while the Pan Am flight was still on the runway.  The resulting collision destroyed both aircraft, killing all 248 aboard the KLM flight and 335 aboard the Pan Am flight.  Only 61 people on the Pan Am flight, including the pilots and flight engineer, survived the disaster.
 
Runway Excursion
A runway excursion is the event in which an aircraft overruns or veers off the runway surface during take-off or landing.  There are four types of runway excursions: take-off overrun, take-off veer-offs, landing overrun and landing veer-offs.  Landing overruns are the most common type, accounting for more than 77% of all runway excursions.  There are several causal and contributory factors that may lead to a runway excursion from which preventive measures are formulated.  Factors that may lead to a runway excursion are identified by analysing data of runway excursions.  A scrutiny of such incidents during the period 1980-2010 has revealed that of over 450 different factors universally judged to be instrumental in the causal chain of events leading to runway excursions, 18 contributory factors were prominent in all analysed incidents.  The study was, however, limited to civil transport type of aircraft involved in commercial or business transport flights.
There are at least two runway excursions each week worldwide.  Runway excursions can result in loss of life and/or damage to the aircraft, buildings or other items struck by the aircraft.  Although the fatality rate typically associated with runway excursions alone is much lower than in other accidents, the disruptions caused can be massive by way of airport closure and inconvenience caused to the passengers.  Runway excursions are estimated to cost the global aviation industry about US$2.1 billion every year as a result of airport closure during the disrupted period and consequent diversions of flights.  These facts bring attention to the need to prioritise measures to prevent runway excursions.
An Air India Express plane from Dubai overshot the table-top runway at Mangalore airport in India on May 22, 2010, and plunged over a cliff into a wooded valley, killing 158 people.  There were 160 passengers and six crew members on board Flight IX-812.  The passengers included 137 adults, 19 children and four infants.  Eight passengers survived miraculously.
 
Runway Confusion
From the analysis of runway excursions data, it appears that the direct role of ATC in runway excursions is relatively small.  There were only a limited number of reports in which ATC was actually identified as one of the causal factors leading to an occurrence, in particular outside the realm of providing the requisite data to the pilot regarding the weather and runway condition.  However the role of ATC can be larger than indicated by the data when looking at the number of runway excursions leading to disasters as a result of perception of the pilot due to confusion in communication.
Comair Flight 191, marketed as Delta Connection Flight 5191, was a domestic US flight from Lexington, Kentucky, to Atlanta, Georgia, operated with a Bombardier Canadair Regional Jet 100ER.  On August 27, 2006, the flight crashed while attempting to take off from Blue Grass Airport in Fayette County, Kentucky.
The aircraft was assigned to Runway 22 for the take-off, but used Runway 26 instead, which was too short for a safe take-off.  The aircraft overran the end of the runway before it could become airborne and crashed just past the end of the runway, killing all 47 passengers and two of the three crew members.  The flight’s first officer was the only survivor.
Aviation is safe, but it can be safer.
Improving on commercial aviation’s already good safety record is going to take the concerted action of everyone in the industry and requires a good hard look at the data.  A great deal of technology and knowledge already exists to make aviation safer – it is now a matter of putting it to work forcefully.
Investigators, aviation analysts and regulators alike have for some time now been studying the issue of runway safety, due to the crowded and complex nature of the network of runways and taxiways that a very large number of aircraft traverse on a day-to-day basis.
Two years ago, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report in which it rated the prospects of “catastrophic runway collision” as “high”.  This, it said, was linked to ineffective airport regulation, technology that wasn’t working to its full potential and Air Traffic Control (ATC) workers being stretched too far.  The report was issued in light of a whole raft of near airport collisions that had taken place at US airports in 2007.
The FAA has looked to draft in improvements across the board since then and urged for tighter communications between aircraft and ATC to avoid runway incursions.  “US runways have been safer,” FAA Chief J Randolph Babbitt stated, adding:  “We intensified the focus, and it is absolutely working.”
 
Safe Bet
So, what measures can ultimately be made to further mitigate or perhaps even eliminate airport disruptions?
• A new runway lighting system is being implemented at airports around the world.  Known as Runway Status Lights, the system indicates potentially dangerous situations to moving aircraft.
• Runway Status Lights (RWSL) are being rolled out along with another new type of airport safety technology – Airport Surface Detection Equipment.  This gives ATC workers the ability to follow the progress of airliners and vehicles within an airport.
• ICAO Universal Safety Oversight Audit Programme (USOAP), launched in January 1999 in response to widespread concerns about the adequacy of aviation safety oversight around the world, is to promote global aviation safety through the regular auditing of safety oversight systems in all ICAO Contracting States.  The areas of concern are:
(a) Deficiencies concerning runway friction measuring
(b) Runway surface to be free from the accumulation of contamination
(c) Establishment of a minimum friction level
(d) Foreign object debris
(e) Certification of existing airports
(f) A standard TRAINAIR training package for global use on the prevention of runway incursions.
The task the world now faces is that of helping the weaker economies of the world raise their safety standards.  The International Air Transport Association (IATA) names several African and Asian nations as particularly bad examples – the first targets to attack are poor governance, non-existing safety oversight and primitive infrastructure.
It is my strong conviction that commercial aviation is not local, national or regional but global in nature and has to be viewed accordingly.  Any weak link will snap the chain.  The challenge is to integrate accident preventive and data-based mitigation strategies into the disruptions management programme as a built-in component into the airport operating systems.