House Aviation Subcommittee Conducts Hearing on Runway Safety

The U.S. House Subcommittee on Aviation met on September 25, 2008 to receive testimony on runway safety.  This hearing was a follow-up to the Subcommittee’s February 13th hearing.  Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.) stated in his opening remarks that although the U.S. air transportation system is the safest in the world, there remain many issues to be addressed to keep it that way.  In particular, he was concerned about the fact that although air traffic is down by 3% for the first six months of 2008 compared with 2007, runway incursions are up slightly.  While agreeing that the FAA is headed in the right direction with respect to the development and the deploying of new runway technology, Rep. Costello wanted the FAA to address the very real human factors that the GAO raised in the previous hearing, i.e., the air traffic controller shortage and the adequacy of the training of air traffic controllers.  Rep. Costello specifically mentioned the serious runway incursion that occurred at Lehigh Valley International Airport in Allentown, Pennsylvania, on September 19, 2008, where a trainee failed to notice that a small single engine airplane had not yet vacated the runway prior to allowing a regional jet to take-off on the same runway.  It was reported that 35% of the controllers at the tower at Allentown are trainees.

With respect to the increase of runway incursions, Hank Krakowski, FAA’s Chief Operating Officer, explained that after the FAA adopted the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) definition of “runway incursion,” it has seen a spike in incursions due to the more inclusive nature of the ICAO definition.  That being said, Mr. Krakowski spent most of his time offering an update about the technological innovations and the progress on the testing in the field.  However, Mr. Krakowski did not address Rep. Costello’s concerns head-on.  Although he addressed some of the “human factors,” by mentioning certain procedural changes and a “first ever” fatigue symposium (which are, by all accounts, steps in the right direction), he did not mention anything about staffing levels and quality of the training.

The necessity of the FAA to increase its focus on the “human factors” was echoed in Dr. Gerald Dillingham’s, GAO’s Director of Physical Infrastructure Issues, testimony.  Dr. Dillingham stated that the FAA is making progress in continuing to develop and test new technology, promoting changes in airport layout, markings, signage and lighting and issuing new air traffic procedures, but still could focus more on the human factors.  The GAO believes that increased training for pilots and air traffic controllers could help address the human factors issues.

Mr. Patrick Forrey, President of NATCA, found himself in the position of reiterating NATCA’s previous recommendation.  Mr. Forrey called for Local Airport Committees for Runway Incursion Prevention, proper staffing of Air Traffic Control Towers, increased modernization of technological components, use of “end-around” taxiways and staggered arrivals into intersecting runways.

Written Testimony provided by:

For a video of the hearing click here.

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