"Moving the Chains Forward"
Robert A. Sturgell, Washington, D.C.
March 25, 2008

Runway Safety Update


I’ve invited you here this afternoon to update you on one of our top safety initiatives. Safety does remain our primary focus, and we will not allow the distractions of the day to keep us from the work at hand.

Our safety record on both fronts — commercial and GA — is nothing short of unprecedented. And a lot of it has to do with the work that goes on every day in this building, and around the country, by our technicians, controllers, inspectors, and engineers.

With that in mind, I’m pleased to announce that we continue to move the chains forward on a pressing matter — runway safety. You’ll recall that last August, we issued a challenge — a call to action to our industry partners that we need to step it up to make runways safer. And they’ve responded like never before.

We’re almost halfway through the year. So far, we’ve had 14 serious runway incursions since the fiscal year started back in October. Only three have involved a commercial air carrier.

There were no deaths or injuries. And 14 is a tiny fraction considering the millions of takeoffs and landings that have gone on in that span. A passenger would have to board a U.S. commercial flight every day for 10,470 years before having the probability of being involved in a serious runway incursion.

Knowing that, it hardly sounds like it’s time to push the panic button, but it’s still too many. And, as the aviation safety agency, we can’t be satisfied even with numbers this small. And the thing about incursions is — they are preventable in almost every instance.

Our call to action included a top-to-bottom review of 20 airports. It uncovered a valuable amount of data — data that’s led to more than 100 fixes. Some of them were as simple as improving the markings and paint on taxiways.

Eighteen of those 20 airports are commercial. What’s interesting to note is that there hasn’t been a serious incursion at a single one of those commercial facilities so far this year. To put that in perspective, those 18 accounted for 33 percent of all serious incidents last year.

Based on the success of that first batch of airports, we’re now going to review 22 more facilities.

Moving west to east, among the airports included will be Sea-Tac, Midway, and LaGuardia, Dulles and Teterboro.

We’re concentrating on the busy East Coast because that’s where the action is. Of our initial review of 20 airports, eight were on the East Coast. In this latest round, there are seven of them.

While LAX has been our single-most problematic airport, the major airports on the East had 66 percent more serious incursions than their counterparts on the West Coast last year.

To complement the efforts of our airport runway safety action teams, I’d like to talk a bit about our technology programs.

The NTSB has long advocated technology that provides a direct warning to pilots in the cockpit. And, while we’re not there yet, we are getting close with technologies like ADS-B. And, some of you may have seen the announcement today about Jeppesen’s certification approval of an “own-ship” moving map display.

To help us better analyze the benefits of current cockpit runway safety technologies, the FAA intends to make available up to $5 million to enter into cost-sharing, cooperative agreements with industry.

It’s a public-private partnership at its best. And it’s in the formative stages at the moment, but the aim is for the operators and manufacturers to outline what they would do with the funds to improve runway safety through the installation of technologies like cockpit moving map displays, the runway advisory warning system, ADS-B, and others.

We’re tentatively focusing on the New York-Florida corridor since that’s where our congestion and NextGen activities are primarily focused as well.

The data that we glean from these technologies will help us better target safety trends and human factors issues to give us the big picture that we simply don’t have yet. More to come on this later in the summer.

We’re also spreading the net of safety well beyond the big airports. We are looking into ways to bring affordable ground surveillance radar systems to small and medium airports. These are places where ground monitoring systems like ASDE-X, which can cost more than $20 million, might not prove to be a sound financial move.

We have two low-cost surveillance systems in testing at Spokane.

The FAA has recently begun to identify other commercially available, low-cost systems that might fit the bill, and to see where they could be installed and tested. We’ve just completed a market survey to identify potential industry partners, and eight companies have stepped forward.

We expect to award contracts for the pilot project this fiscal year. Additionally, we plan to have some of these products on the ground and under evaluation at about six airports in fiscal 2009. These systems will directly benefit the controller workforce with increased situational awareness.

Likewise, we’re moving ahead with another important technology — runway status lights. It’s an alert warning system with red lights embedded in the pavement to warn pilots to hold right where they are. This measure will significantly boost runway safety without reducing capacity or adding to controller workload.

The reasoning behind runway lights is simple. Drivers have stop lights to guide them. Why not pilots?

DFW and San Diego already have them. LAX is up next. And stay tuned for an important announcement soon about airport #4. It’s our hope that by 2011, at least 20 airports will have them.

Toward that end, the FAA has begun the process of inviting companies to present proposals for a national rollout of runway status lights. Expect an announcement by this summer on who gets the contract.

But technology itself isn’t the only answer to a safe runway. It’s not going to make incursions disappear overnight. We also must focus on the human factor. One of those factors that sometimes surfaces is fatigue. Tired people are more apt to make mistakes. Everyone knows that.

Whether it’s fatigued pilots, controllers, mechanics, or anyone else, we want to work with the industry to discuss the problem and find possible solutions.

So, we are going to sponsor a first-ever symposium dedicated solely to the issue of fatigue.

We’re dedicating three days in June, the 17th, 18th and 19th, and it’ll take place here in the Washington area. I’ll be there, along with a number of experts to discuss the latest scientific evidence and best practices.

As you can see, we’re not letting up on the safety front. We relish the challenge of finding ways to make a safe system even safer. In short, we’re engaged and we’re moving forward.

At this point, I’ll turn things over to my colleagues to elaborate a little more on what we’re doing.

Thank you.

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