Paul M. Foster, Jr., EdD
Preventing runway incursions is one of the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA's) highest priorities. Though relatively small in number when compared to the high level of traffic that moves safely through the nation's airports every day, runway incursions present a special challenge. Not only do they have the potential to put lives at risk due to the number and proximity of aircraft operating on the airport surface, but they also take place in a complex and dynamic environment.
Pilots are trained to carefully plan the en route portion of their flight, and the Office of Runway Safety & Operational Services is stressing the importance of using the same type of careful planning for ground operations. In fact, recently published standard operating procedures (SOPs) emphasize safe surface operations. For example, one SOP recommends that pilots review airport diagrams before taxiing or landing, particularly at unfamiliar airports.
What makes up an airport?
Besides the hangars (buildings for housing and servicing aircraft), airports are usually equipped with office and terminal buildings which house administrative, traffic control, communication, and weather observation personnel. An airport (airfield) is a place for landing and departure of aircraft, and for receiving and discharging passengers and cargo. In addition to the wide paved strips known as runways, there are narrower paved strips called taxiways connecting the runways to other parts of the airport. A taxiway and a runway are usually connected at each end and at several intermediate points.
From a safety perspective, an airport is divided into two distinct areas. One area is known as the movement area, which is under the control of air traffic, and usually includes the runways, taxiways, and other areas of an airport that aircraft use for taxiing, takeoff, and landing. The other area, known as the non-movement area, usually includes taxi lanes, aprons, ramps, and other areas not under the control of air traffic. The movement of aircraft or vehicles (i.e., tugs) within the non-movement area is the responsibility of the pilot, mechanics, the aircraft operator, or airport management.
At most airports, the movement and non-movement areas are separated by a solid yellow line and a dashed yellow line (See Figure 1).
It is permissible to cross from the dashed side to the solid side; however, ATC permission is always required to cross from the solid side to the dashed side at an airport with an operating control tower.
What should mechanics know?
A surface incident is a broad term encompassing all movement areas (including runways and taxiways) and is “any event where unauthorized or unapproved movement occurs within the movement area, or an occurrence in the movement area associated with the operation of an aircraft that affects or could affect the safety of flight.” Surface incidents may be caused by pilots and reported as pilot deviations (PD), by vehicle drivers or pedestrians and reported as vehicle/pedestrian deviations (V/PD), or by air traffic control and reported as operational errors/deviations (OE/OD). A V/PD report includes incidents caused by mechanics taxiing and/or towing aircraft. The FAA further classifies a surface incident as either a runway incursion or a non-runway incursion.
The current definition of a runway incursion is “any occurrence at an aerodrome involving the incorrect presence of an aircraft, vehicle or person on the protected area of a surface designated for the landing and take-off of aircraft.”
The FAA knows who, what, where, and when aspects of a surface incident or runway incursion, but not always the why. Under the voluntary runway incursion information evaluation program (RIIEP), questions have been designed to help answer the why. For example, when a mechanic taxiing an aircraft is involved in an incident and decides to participate in RIIEP, some basic questions will be posed, such as: (1) Was the mechanic familiar with the airport layout? (2) Were airport signs, lights or markings contributing factors? (3) Did language or clearance interpretation problems contribute to the event? (4) Did radio communications play a role? and (5) What does the mechanic believe caused the incident? The RIIEP program has been discontinued.