On March 27, 1977, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines Flight 4805 was ready to take off from Los Rodeos Airport on the island of Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands. Fog blanketed the airport’s lone runway, and the only major taxiway was crowded with other planes awaiting takeoff.
KLM’s captain, Jacob Veldhuyzen van Zanten, and his co-pilot, Klaas Meurs, thought they had been given clearance from air traffic control to take off and did not realize there was a Pan American World Airways airliner taxiing down the runway. The KLM pilots barreled down the runway, unable to see the Pan Am jet. By the time they did, their plane was going too fast to stop.
The resulting collision killed 583 people — the most deaths from any accident in aviation history.
It is ironic that the deadliest accident in aviation history took place not in the air but between two planes on solid ground. The tragedy was certainly an anomaly, but the risk of on-ground accidents, called “incursions” in the airline industry, remains very real. While the independent Aviation Safety Network deemed 2012 as the safest year for air travel since 1945, the airport runway continues to present increasing risks for airlines. According to the Federal Aviation Association, for example, there was a large increase in total runway incursions over the past year, from 954 in 2011 to 1,149 incidents in 2012.
Fortunately, these incidents typically only involve minor bumps and scrapes. In February 2012 at Atlanta International Airport, a B737-700 attempted to pass a B737-800 as the latter was waiting to park, according to a report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Upon request, the B737-800 moved forward so that the other airplane could pass. When the B737-700 attempted to go by, its left winglet struck the B737-800’s right elevator, substantially damaging it. No one was injured.
In many other instances, these incidents only amount to near misses. In September 2012, the New York Times reported that Southwest Airlines Flight 844 narrowly avoided collision with a business jet. The Southwest pilots were taxiing on the runway and only realized at the last moment that the smaller jet was streaming across the runway for takeoff. They managed to brake in time as the business jet passed over them.
As long as near misses continue to be misses, we can breathe a sigh of relief. But their very frequency means that the threat of another tragedy looms, particularly as emerging countries provide more international service, and airports and runways become more congested.
“As more foreign airlines are present in domestic airports, you do run into the issue of language barrier,” said Gene Kaskiw, an associate in the aviation tort defense practice team of the Newark, New Jersey-based law firm LeClairRyan. “English is the universal language in aviation, but obviously it is not the native language in many countries.” If pilots do not fully understand commands or misinterpret instructions, then the risk of an accident increases.
Douglas McQueen, another associate of LeClairRyan and an experienced commercial airline pilot, said that miscommunication was a major factor in the 1977 incident. “In fact it was just the word ‘at’ that was a factor in that crash,” he said.
According to McQueen, the KLM captain used a non-standard phrase in aviation terminology, telling air traffic control that he was “at takeoff,” which left it unclear whether he was in the process of taking off or simply moving into position to take off. “Control missed it,” said McQueen.
Aviation attorney Stewart Lapayowker agrees that a lot of issues with runway incursions surround communication. “Pilots needs to make sure they ask for progressive directions especially at airports that they are not familiar with,” he said.
According to McQueen, there are four important factors to keep in mind when considering the probability of runway incursion: pilot error, air traffic controller error, ground worker error and airport procedures.
The first three factors deal with the larger issue of situational awareness and the pilot’s responsibility to remain vigilant and thorough when on the job. It is no wonder that there tends to be an emphasis on training and worker fitness when dealing with mitigating runway risk. Pilot fatigue is an issue that the FAA takes very seriously, which led to the release of new regulations in December 2011 that required pilots to remain off duty for at least 10 hours between shifts. However, even with the most rigorous training and sufficient sleep, pilots and other airport workers are still subject to human error.
Therefore, the aviation industry’s ongoing attempts to standardize aviation terminology would not go amiss in reducing the chance of confusion, so that a pilot knows when to be on a runway at a given time and stress on airport workers is alleviated. Managing risk on the runway goes beyond a common system of language, however.
McQueen says there is just as much need for technological support, such as the ground-based radar that Newark Liberty International Airport employs on its airfield and moving map displays in cockpits. Such tools, like hot spots on a chart, help make pilot training more rigorous.
“Hot spots” are a term that the FAA and the industry developed to help mitigate hazards on the ground, according to McQueen. “They began to identify areas at the airport that either historically have shown a strong potential for ground collisions or where collisions may actually have occurred,” he said. This data is compiled and given to pilots so they know to be more careful in these high-risk areas.
At the end of the day, the key concept for managing risk on the runway is to implement layers of safety. Training and technology alone may not be enough to reduce hazards. If airport congestion becomes more of a problem, airport operators will need to consider improving their infrastructure and how runways are designed. Airports may have to, for example, consider redesigning runways and taxiways so that they loop around each other rather than intersect as many do now.
In order to really address the problem of runway incursion risk, airports must decide how much they can invest in these preventative measures. Fortunately, the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program (AIP) provides $3.4 billion in funding each year to help the nation’s airports maintain safety and capacity.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has written about how the AIP has helped various airports improve runway safety. The Danville Regional Airport in Virginia, for example, received a $10 million AIP grant that funded new safety features like runway markings, signs and edge lighting. The Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport received a $17.6 million grant to upgrade its runway and taxiway. And Boise Air Terminal/Gowen Field in Idaho received a $6.8 million dollar grant to rehabilitate its primary runway.
Runway incursions and near misses are likely to persist unless airports take action and invest in safety. But surely it is worth it if it means preventing another catastrophe and ensuring that the tragedy of 1977 remains the worst aviation disaster in history.