NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy held an NTSB roundtable this week on the state of runway incursions. She was joined by colleagues in the Office of Aviation Safety and other industry leaders and organizations like the FAA. Homendy and the panelists addressed concerns over the rise of runway incursions since 2017 and the path forward.
In 2023 alone, there has been a total of 365 runway incursions. The NTSB is investigating at least six of these incidents. After the NOTAM outage in January, the state of aviation safety has been up for debate not only in the aviation industry, but in the government and the general public. Some of the near-misses could have been catastrophic.
There are four categories of runway incursions, ranging from an incident with no immediate safety consequence to a serious incident in which a collision was narrowly avoided. One of the six incidents under investigation was the most serious, a Category A event. The February incident occurred at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS) when a FedEx 767 and a Southwest Airlines 737 overlapped as the 767 landed and the 737 departed. Homendy said the two planes came within 115 feet of each other, with 131 people on board the two aircraft.
At an altitude of 150 feet, the FedEx First Officer called for a go-around when he noticed the silhouette of the 737 under low visibility conditions. Soon after, the 737 aborted its takeoff. Homendy said the FedEx crewmembers prevented a disaster that day, likely saving their lives and the lives of all the crew and passengers on the 737.
One video caught a close call between a Cessna 172 and a Boeing 757 coming within about 500 feet of each other. An American Airlines 777 flight and a Delta Airlines 737 flight at John F. Kennedy had a close call when the 777 crossed the runway without ATC clearance, forcing the 737 to abort takeoff. The closest point between the 777 and 737 was 1,400 feet, but the controversy continued when the American Airlines crew refused to partake in a recorded interview and the NTSB had to issue subpoenas to complete the investigation. An earlier incident in June 2022 is under investigation, involving a Cargo plane and a passenger flight that put 174 people at risk.RELATED STORIES:Safety alert issued after series of runway incursions, FAA urges airlines and pilots to take actionRecent runway incursions cause alarm, stats show they are on the rise
While she would not discuss the nature of the open investigations, Homendy notes that the recent vents should be a wake-up call.
"The sobering truth is that it only takes one," Homendy said. "Any of these events could've had devastating consequences…could've led to tragedy…to more bereaved families."
Homendy stated that the last time runway incursions were covered in this capacity was in 2017, but now the roundtable had more voices and a stronger call to avoid a repeat of the past. She found that many people in the industry feel that training, staffing and funding are concerns. A union president told Homendy that many members that drive on airport surfaces need better training. She noted that training is a concern across the industry. Staffing raises another concern, with low staffing levels having an impact on safety. Homendy said the FAA is currently looking to hire roughly 3,000 air traffic controllers in the coming years. She also said that funding is an issue and will continue advocating for more funding for the FAA."If we want to upgrade existing technologies to prevent runway incursions, implement new technologies, invest in projects to reconfigure or construct new taxiways, install new lighting, modernize systems so that we are better able to use data in decision making, and build upon an already highly skilled workforce…that takes resources," Homendy said.
One of the most important tools to progress forward is the voices of all the unique members of the industry. Change cannot happen without input from the front line and the labor that is directly involved in daily airport operations. Homendy notes that a major difference between the 2017 meeting and now, are the influx of participation and the new voices that have come to the table to help find answers. Homendy highlights the importance of cooperation, stating that, "all of us are partners in safety. Not a single one of us wants to see a tragedy occur."RELATED STORY:FAA gives $100m to 12 airports to reduce runway incursions
The FAA is already pushing for action on the runway incursions, recently funding 12 airports with over $100 million for projects to reduce incursions like reconfiguring confusing taxiways and installing airfield lighting. The FAA also convened a Safety Summit in the wake of the runway incursions and close calls. The industry is aware of the problem, and fighting to prevent it from growing.
Most incidents occur during the takeoff or landing phase when the plane is closer to the ground and more vulnerable. As the industry rebounds from the pandemic, airports across the country have seen a spike in travelers, making airport safety and risk mitigation crucial.