What Airport Execs Think

Aug. 8, 2001

What Airport Execs Think

When asked, runway incursions head the list of airfield safety issues

By John Boyce, Contributing Editor

August 2001

In Tulsa, it’s snow removal equipment; in Wyoming, it’s wild game; in Cleveland, it’s runway convergence; in West Virginia and other places, it’s vehicular traffic. During recent interviews with airport managers around the country, runway incursions topped the list of safety concerns, but are by no means their only target.

Runway incursions have become a hot button issue in airport safety circles. The increasing number of them has prompted the FAA to urge airports to eradicate or at least reduce the number of incidents in which people, aircraft, vehicles, or animals are on runways or taxiways when they shouldn’t be.
"The [safety] item that seems to be getting the attention this year is incursions," says Joel Russell, manager of busy Westchester County Airport in White Plains, NY. "The FAA has a taskforce. We met with the FAA, the airport users, the tower, airport management, and we came up with a list of action items for all involved. We put out a hot spot notification of certain intersections that needed special attention.
"We’re also putting an orientation package together so that new operators on the field can learn, in addition to other logistical items, about the hot spots and the concerns over incursions — just to re-emphasize it.’’
That is not to say that other aspects of airport safety — fuel handling, security, environmental hazards — are not on the minds of airport executives. For instance, Chuck Keener, director of Morgantown [WVA] Municipal Airport and FBO services, is concerned about a small though important detail concerning into-plane fueling.
"We don’t use enough spotters," Keener says, "especially when we’re backing a fuel truck towards an aircraft. I’m working on making sure we never back up a refueler towards an aircraft without a second body as a spotter. That chance always exists that they’ll back a little too far.’’
As an ex-military man, Keener has seen the devastation that careless fuel handling can bring, so fuel safety is a priority item for him. However, for Keener and most of his colleagues, dealing with fuel safety and runway incursions is simply part of an overall safety scheme that requires constant oversight.
Ted Soliday, executive director of Naples [FL] Airport Authority, which also provides FBO services, says safety is an attitude, one that’s the responsibility of management to develop and nurture. "We are very vigilant," he says. "Everything we do is very carefully controlled. We have a management team that is on its toes all the time looking over each other’s shoulders to make sure we do things correctly.
"We have staff on board who have been in this business for over 25 years. Even with that level of experience, we have weekly safety meetings. We’re very careful in making sure that the procedures we develop are first learned by staff and emphasized by discipline. We expect our staff members to find out how to do something smarter, better, safer. We accept their input. We make changes a lot. We’ll never compromise safety, it’s something we work on all the time.’’

In 1997 Cleveland Hopkins International had a major problem with runway incursions. Commissioner Mark VanLoh, A.A.E., immediately mobilized his staff to improve the situation.
"Everybody got their heads together," VanLoh says. "We applied for a small federal grant. We put in control lights, we repainted, we closed a taxiway that was a problem, we put out notices to all area general aviation departments—-pilots, FBOs, other airports’’ about what is taking place at the airport and the trouble or "hot" spots. "We do have a terrible layout system here; three runways that converge.’’
VanLoh says that incursions dramatically decreased during ’98 and ’99 due in part to the closure of the taxiway that also converged with the three runways. However, he, like Soliday in Naples, knows that the price of safety is eternal vigilance.
"We even received Vice President Gore’s Hammer Award at the time," he says, "but you can’t rest (when it comes to safety). We continue to have quarterly capacity and Runway Incursion Action Team meetings — RIAT we call them. We meet with the FAA. We even had our administrator from the [FAA] Great Lakes Region fly out and come to the meeting, so we know it’s important to the FAA.’’
A new parallel runway, now under construction at Hopkins, will completely eliminate the problem of converging runways, VanLoh says.
For Jay Lundell, manager at Gillette-Campbell County Airport in Gillette, WY, the incursion problem doesn’t pertain to aircraft and vehicles so much as it does to wild game on the ramp and migrating birds in the air.
"Out here in the western part of the country," Lundell says, "a lot of safety issues pertain to wild game getting onto the airport proper. That’s one of my bigger concerns." To eliminate that problem, Lundell put up a largely FAA-funded eight-foot high game fence all the way around the airport. "That has cut down a lot of our incidents of game getting on the airport proper," he continues. "Sometimes they can still get in by crawling underneath at creeks when the water level is low. The other problem is migrating geese and ducks. We’re fortunate to have a control tower and you have those extra eyes out there’’ looking for birds during certain times of the year.

Brent Kitchen, A.A.E., airports manager for Tulsa International and its general aviation reliever Richard L. Jones, Jr. Airport, doesn’t cite one particular safety issue. Rather, he talks of "the whole host of regulatory requirements and making sure the physical facilities are maintained to standard requirements."
However, Jones Airport was in the top 20 airports for runway incursions last year and Kitchen has directed steps to turn around the situation. He has put in runway guard lights, more clearly striped runways and taxiways, and built access gates to better control vehicular traffic on the airport.
Another concern Kitchen has at Tulsa International is one he shares with many airport managers around the country: coordinating snow and ice removal and the movement of the many pieces of equipment required to do it.
During adverse weather, "We’re on ground control," Kitchen says, "and we have to close the surfaces we’re working on. We have to coordinate that with the airline dispatchers and the tower. We do 30 minutes on [clearing the runway] and 30 minutes off. We try to give our carriers as much notice as we possibly can before we close the runway to go out and remove snow. We stick to that 30 on, 30 off so that they can depend on it.
"We have to make sure we are coordinated with the tower to have clearance if we’re on an active runway or taxiway. And we have to make sure that the tower, the airlines, and all the people understand what is closed and what is open.’’

Radar; Environmental
While runway incursions and coordinating snow removal aren’t at the top of the safety agenda at Asheville [NC] Regional Airport, its director, C.M. (Mike) Armour, A.A.E., wants to enhance safety by increasing the scope of his surveillance radar.
"We’d like to see the FAA take a look at upgrading [it]," Armour says. "And along with the upgrade we’re asking them to take a look at the site location of the antenna. We’re in a mountainous region, and where the antenna is precludes us some coverage areas. If we could find another site at a higher elevation it would afford us much better coverage. I’m not insinuating that the operation is unsafe now; but with a new site location, they could make some enhancements that would certainly enhance safety."
Concern for the environment also has Armour keeping a watchful eye on fuel handling and distribution at his airport. "We’re obviously concerned about safety involving environmental issues," he says. "They have to come into play because of the potential consequences....
"We’re very close to a river, so the implications of any kind of environmental situation from an oil spill or whatever are fairly significant for a disaster [to] occur. We haven’t had any situations of any magnitude, but nonetheless those are still things that are in the forefront of your mind."

To deal with incursions, fuel handling mishaps, and other safety issues at airports, many airport executives emphasize better training and re-training.
Soliday relates that a couple of years ago two incursions in close proximity to each other occurred at his airport. That set off a flurry of activity to discover why the incursions took place — why a contract employee and an airline employee took it upon themselves, in one instance, to walk across an active runway, and in the other, to drive across.
"We heightened our training," Soliday says. "...Not only did we take aggressive action to make sure all of our airline employees were retrained on vehicle movements on the AOA, but further than that, we recognized that an airline employee is typically more trained than an FBO [employee]. So we did the same thing with all of our FBO’s [personnel] and all of our operators on the airport. We also worked with the young man who made the mistake [of walking across] and tried to understand what was going through his mind, and we changed our training program to help stabilize it.’’
Russell at Westchester has, in response to the problem of incursions, increased driver training for driver certification on the airport. "For people that have permits to drive vehicles on the aeronautical surface, we’ve augmented the training and we are going to increase the recurrent training aspect of it," he says.
Keener thinks that too much of the responsibility for training fuel handlers lies with the airports. He would like to see more coordination, cooperation, and communication between the airports and the fuel companies.