I have fond memories of my first flight, an Eastern Airlines DC-9 bound for Orlando and our transport to a week in — you guessed it — Disney World. We departed at night from JFK Airport, taxiing among a dizzying array of colorful lights, illuminated signs, and pavement markings unlike anything I’d ever seen. With my face glued to the small cabin window, I watched in awe as we bobbed and weaved around the airport grounds and joined the delicate dance with planes of all sizes on their way to the runway. It all seemed a bit of a mystery to me as to how anyone could tell where they were going, and more importantly, not clip each other’s wings!
That mystery would be unraveled nearly a decade later after I began flying lessons at nearby Islip Airport. While runway safety remained paramount throughout my flying, it wasn’t until I started my career with the FAA that I could appreciate the full extent of what goes on behind the scenes to ensure airport surface safety. Allow me to introduce the FAA’s runway safety professionals, the highly skilled men and women who quite literally ensure that aviation safety starts from the ground up.
It All Starts With a Plan
Since runway safety spans several different operational domains, the FAA’s effort takes on a collaborative approach to ensure all the key players have a say in the decision-making process. There are three main pillars of support: the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization (ATO), the Office of Airports (ARP), and the Flight Standards Service (FS). Each of these three, along with a supporting cast of internal and industry stakeholders, plays a distinct role in how surface safety is executed in the National Airspace System (NAS).
These collaborative efforts are also in line with the agency’s guiding light on surface safety, the National Runway Safety Plan (NRSP). This report provides the framework for the FAA’s risk-based and data-driven approach towards enhancing NAS safety on a local, national, and international scale. Its success stems from the integration of Safety Management System (SMS) principles to create a systematic approach for managing safety. A prime example of the NRSP’s effectiveness has been the ability to identify wrong surface operations as a rising risk in recent years, and to create an action plan to mitigate that risk.
Air Traffic Organization
While the NRSP provides the overarching strategy for improving runway safety, FAA Order 7050.1B, Runway Safety Program (PDF download), details the organizational structure and policy framework necessary to carry out the plan’s initiatives. As outlined in the Order, the focal point for the FAA’s runway safety initiatives is ATO’s Safety and Technical Training Directorate which provides executive level oversight of the FAA’s Runway Safety Program. But where you’re more likely to see the “rubber hit the runway” in terms of day-to-day execution is with the Runway Safety Group (RSG), formerly known as the Office of Runway Safety. This group is broken out into three main service areas: Eastern, Central, and Western, as well as a headquarters team in Washington, D.C. Each service area is further split into three regions to ensure proper coverage of the NAS (see Figure 1). The service areas (including headquarters) each have a team manager, and there are regional runway safety program managers in place at all nine regions.
RSG members at the regional level routinely work with local airports, flight schools, airport tenants, and various other stakeholders to research and resolve runway safety issues, develop regional runway safety plans, and provide outreach at events. These are among the people you’re likely to see chatting up pilots at a fly-in or discussing airport hot spots at the local Runway Safety Action Team (RSAT) meetings (more on that later). Service area involvement in the RSG tends to be on a broader scale with an emphasis on managing air traffic resources for that area.
One unique difference is with the headquarters service area. This group is responsible for coordinating with the Runway Safety Council (RSC), an executive steering committee that is a combination of agency and industry partners. RSC members work together to identify root causes of surface safety issues and develop mitigation plans. Airmen and operators get a seat at the table for policy decisions via representative organizations like AOPA, EAA, NBAA, or the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. The RSC also corrals various FAA resources across different lines of business to ensure a holistic approach to problem-solving. This process will be formalized in an upcoming revision to the 7050.1 Order and will give the RSC more of a lead role in resolving critical runway safety issues and promoting a more proactive safety culture.
Headquarters service area runway safety program manager Christine Madden works closely with the RSC and the associated Surface Safety Group (SSG), a collaborative team of subject matter experts across the FAA and industry who develop and monitor surface safety initiatives in line with RSC objectives. A major focus for Christine and the SSG is outreach. Together they have developed tools to educate both vehicle drivers and pilots on how to prevent runway incursions. Two recent examples include the Runway Safety Pilot Simulator and the From the Flight Deck video series that details runway safety strategies at specific airports.
Christine is also a strong advocate for safety outreach at non-towered airports. “Just because we don’t have data coming from these locations doesn’t mean [pilots] don’t need to understand how to operate safely.” This has become more prevalent, even at some towered airports that are seeing reduced operating hours due to COVID-19. Christine, and her team co-lead Ray German, are also supporting a new effort to standardize airport hot spot symbology and have proposed a visual depiction that provides a cockpit view of the runway environment at airports where data indicates wrong surface events are a problem. See the article “Hot Spots! Part Deux” in this issue for more on these.
Collaboration among many diverse agency and industry stakeholders makes team efforts to greater than the sum of its parts. NAS users are also an important part of runway safety.
Another group integral to the FAA’s runway safety efforts is the Office of Airports (ARP). In addition to awarding and facilitating airport grants, ARP helps manage infrastructure needs and is responsible for overall airport safety and design standards. The RSC and SSG rely heavily on input from this organization, especially when runway incursion mitigations involve the need for structural changes. ARP’s flagship program for managing these efforts is the Runway Incursion Mitigation (RIM) program formed in 2015. While existing guidance had discussed ways to mitigate, reduce, or eliminate runway incursions, RIM was developed to address the problem in a more focused way.
Tasked with leading the RIM program, National Resource Expert for Airport Design Steve Debban set out to analyze existing runway incursion data to more clearly identify high-risk areas. Several years ago, working with the FAA’s William J. Hughes Technical Center, they were able to come up with a list of taxiway elements or “geocodes” that have commonalities with incursions. Some examples include taxiways having direct runway access from the ramp to the runway, short taxiing distances between runways, and unexpected hold short line locations. “We even noticed incursions at locations with standard taxiway designs because of visibility limitations and differences with smaller aircraft,” said Debban.
Armed with that information, the agency set out to geo-reference incursions at the more than 500 tower-controlled airports over the past seven years and narrowed the focus on the more frequent offenders. After validating these locations and weeding out some of those outlier incursions caused by communication issues or special events (construction), an inventory of approximately 140 locations was created. “This allowed us to get these locations into the RIM program and get specific mitigation projects underway,” stated Debban. As of January 2021, 65 RIM locations implemented site-specific enhancements including taxiway reconfigurations and changes to lighting, markings, and aircraft operations. Other solutions like an education campaign or a hot spot designation are employed when physical changes are not feasible or best suited.
Debban is proud to point out the impressive 77-percent average reduction in runway incursions for RIM locations that were mitigated. He adds that they continuously monitor these locations for reoccurrence as well as assess incoming data for any new RIM candidates. Debban also credits the many ARP regional and district employees who do a bulk of the work at the individual airports including geometry redesign assessments and bringing RIM discussions to the forefront at local RSAT meetings. “They are really the pointy end of the sword with work that’s done,” said Debban. See more on RIM in this video.
ARP is also researching ways to mitigate wrong surface events (WSEs). A current study will consider some customized solutions including a closer look at ambient lighting and surrounding geography at an airport. There is particular attention on developing some new standards for the lighted “X” for a closed runway. Is the current standard large or bright enough? Does the X’s configuration or placement impact its effectiveness? Ongoing lab tests may soon supply those answers.
Rounding out the triad of support for the FAA’s runway safety program is the Flight Standards Service. This group helps develop surface safety policy and guidance material (FAA handbooks, Advisory Circulars, etc.), facilitates runway incursion investigations, and is a critical component to the agency’s education and outreach efforts on runway safety. Flight Standards assigns staff to work within the Runway Safety Group, with Aviation Safety Inspector Nick DeLotell as the primary conduit between the two groups. Nick is active within the SSG and RSC, and provides critical input on runway safety matters as well as assistance with investigations and data collection efforts on surface events. (See this issue’s FAA Faces department for more about Nick.)
Nick DeLotell, FAA General Aviation and Commercial Division’s Operations Group
Faces: FAA employee profile
Complementing Flight Standards’ work on the national scale are the thousands of FAA Safety Team (FAASTeam) Program Managers (FPM) and Representatives scattered throughout the United States. As part of the FAASTeam’s National Performance Program, FPMs and Reps are encouraged to integrate runway safety principles throughout their different outreach vehicles, including seminars, meetings, and electronic messaging. They also work closely with ATO and ARP personnel by providing valuable local insight and setting up and advertising the RSAT meetings mentioned earlier. RSATs are a vital part of keeping airmen and airport stakeholders informed about issues specific to their local airport and operating area. They are required to be held at least annually for every towered airport, but can be more frequent depending on the status of ongoing projects or recurring issues.
According to FPM Ernie Copeland at the Scottsdale Flight Standards District Office, attendance at RSATs in his area range as high as 60 at some larger and more complex airports. Despite the new virtual platform for RSATs due to COVID-19 restrictions, Ernie notes that attendance is still extremely good. In fact, Ernie is excited about having this attendance-boosting virtual option available even after in-person meetings resume.
“We’ve seen hot spots completely disappear as a result of RSAT meetings,” said Copeland. One example he notes is with a particularly confusing taxiway configuration at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport (KIWA). He describes the angular intersection as similar to a “peace” symbol, with four taxiways converging right near the runway. “People were not only making mistakes taxiing, but were also inadvertently wandering out on the runway.” Thanks to the collaborative discussions at RSATs, a safety-enhancing solution successfully made its way from concept to construction (see Figure 2).
Another success story rooted in RSAT deliberations is an ongoing project to change a confusing offset parallel runway configuration at Tucson International (KTUC) to a more standard configuration with matching runway lengths and widths. But as Copeland notes, not all solutions involve major construction. “Sometimes safety can be improved with a simple can of paint.” That was the case at Phoenix Goodyear (KGYR), where an area of taxiway lines was redrawn to reduce the potential for runway conflicts.
Collaboration is Key
So there’s your behind-the-scenes glance on how the FAA is working to improve surface safety. There are lots of moving parts and pieces, but the FAA’s Runway Safety Program stands as a model in the aviation industry for convening the right people and resources to effect positive change. Key to its success is the collaboration among the many diverse agency and industry stakeholders, enabling the team’s efforts to truly be greater than the sum of its parts. Remember, NAS users like you are an important part of that runway safety equation too. To ensure your voice is heard, reach out to an advocacy group, attend an RSAT, or chat with your friendly FAASTeam Rep. Together we can make a difference to keep things safe both in the air and on the ground!