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Q+A: What’s Preventing More Close-Calls on Airport Runways?

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Two planes missed colliding on the runway at New York’s JFK Airport by about 1,000 feet last week. With hundreds of flights arriving and departing the airport each day, even the smallest miscommunication or misunderstanding could be catastrophic. The systems that keep plane traffic in order in the air have been in place for decades and are relatively well known. But when dozens of airplanes converge on the ground at airports, there is a much higher risk of something going wrong.

Divya Bhargava, PhD

Transportation agencies are aware of the situation and have been working for years to improve communications and safety protocols, while learning from incidents on the runway, or  incursions, which can range from stray animals on the runway to near-misses like the one at JFK.

Drexel University College of Engineering Assistant Teaching Professor Divya Bhargava, PhD, studies how these incidents are investigated and reported, and how this information can be used to improve runway safety. Bhargava’s background is in aeronautical and astronautical and systems engineering, and user-interface design. Through her research, and experience as a licensed pilot, Bhargava has become an expert in accident modeling and analysis of the contributing factors that converge when these unfortunate situations occur. 

Bhargava recently shared some insight on the near-miss at JFK and how better understanding how it happened could help reduce the chances of something similar happening in the future.

How serious of a runway incursion was the one that happened at JFK on Jan. 13?

The incursion, fortunately, was not a fatal accident as there was no loss of life or damage to either aircraft (from what we know). However, it is pretty serious given the closeness of the two aircraft, and Delta being on a takeoff roll (at higher speeds than taxiing). Thankfully, Delta could successfully abort takeoff and avoid a collision.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has certain criteria it uses to determine the “seriousness” of the incursion. Each runway incursion incident is rated from category A through D — in increasing order of seriousness. For example, a “Category A” incident would be where the pilot had just enough time to see the incursion develop and take evasive action. A “Category D” incident would be if the aircraft inadvertently entered onto a runway and there was no other aircraft in the vicinity.

We’ll have to wait for the FAA to assign a category to determine the “actual” seriousness of the event. 

How often do incursions and near-misses occur? What are the most frequent causes?

Statistically, pre COVID, three to four incursions occurred each day in the United States. These include commercial and general aviation, and all categories of incursions. The most frequent causes would be errors in communication, for instance, a controller issuing an incorrect instruction or the pilot not following the instruction. Human error, essentially, is a major contributor of runway incursions and it becomes important to investigate why the controller or the pilot made an error.

What are the procedures for reporting and investigating them?

At towered airports in the U.S., the controller on duty reports the incident to the FAA. The controller describes what happened and who was involved. The level of investigation depends on the seriousness of the event. If, let’s say, it was a Category C or D incident at a small regional airport, the investigation would include getting a pilot’s statement or additional information from the controller.

Because the incident at JFK involved two commercial aircraft at a large airport, the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board will investigate the incident. Pilots can also report incidents — these reports are anonymized and, given the seriousness of the events, protects the pilot against any penalties.

While the FAA’s investigation of the situation is still pending, it seems that miscommunication played a role in this particular near-miss event. What are some systems/procedures in place to prevent this sort of miscommunication from happening?

Pilot readback/controller hear back is key — this is the process when an air traffic controller will instruct the pilot how to proceed and the pilot will repeat those instructions back to the air traffic controller. It makes sure that the pilot has the correct set of instructions.

Additionally, pilots refer to runway diagrams to navigate correctly and safely at an airport and pay attention to the markings and signage at the airport. Before entering any runway, the pilot must have clearance to enter the runway, or else hold short of any runways, and – even when they have clearance — always look to both sides for traffic before entering onto it.

What might we learn from this incident that will help airports improve their safety procedures? 

I think it’s important to investigate the “why” and not just the “what.” By now, we all know what happened and, to an extent, how it happened. The “why” usually gets into human factors, such as were there any workload pressures? Were the pilots in a hurry to get to their destination? Were the pilots overworked/fatigued? Was the intersection confusing? Or were the markings/signage at the airport not clear? And so on.

Media interested in speaking with Divya Bhargava should contact Britt Faulstick, or 215.895.2617.

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