Aviation Runway and Ramp Safety:

Sustained Efforts to Address Leadership, Technology, and Other Challenges Needed to Reduce Accidents and Incidents

GAO-08-29: Published: Nov 20, 2007. Publicly Released: Dec 5, 2007.

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While aviation accidents in the United States are relatively infrequent, recent incidents have heightened concerns about safety on airport runways and ramps. As the nation's aviation system becomes more crowded every day, increased congestion at airports may exacerbate ground safety concerns. To safely handle the anticipated larger volumes of air traffic, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is implementing the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) to better manage air traffic both in the air and on the ground. GAO was asked to evaluate (1) the progress being made in addressing runway safety and what additional measures, if any, could be taken and (2) the factors affecting progress in improving ramp safety and what is being done by FAA and others to address those factors. We reviewed runway and ramp safety data, interviewed agency officials and industry stakeholders, and surveyed experts.

FAA and aviation stakeholders have taken steps to address runway and ramp safety, including deploying and testing technology designed to prevent runway incursions, which occur when aircraft enter the runway without authorization, and overruns, which occur when aircraft run off the ends of runways; helping to change airport layout, markings, signage, and lighting; and providing training for pilots and air traffic controllers. In addition, FAA has made progress in addressing runway overruns and reports that 70 percent of the runways at U.S. commercial airports substantially comply with runway safety area standards, up from 55 percent in 2000. However, the rate of runway incursions has not decreased over the last 5 years. In addition, FAA has not prepared a national runway safety plan since 2002, despite agency policy that it be updated every 2 to 3 years, resulting in uncoordinated efforts within the agency. Runway safety technology currently being installed is experiencing some operational difficulties with its alerting function, while additional technology to prevent runway collisions is years away from deployment. FAA also lacks data on runway overruns that could be used to analyze the causes and circumstances of such incidents. Air traffic controller fatigue, which may result from regularly working overtime, continues to be a matter of concern for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which investigates transportation accidents, and other aviation stakeholders. Efforts to improve safety in airport ramp areas, where departing and arriving aircraft are serviced by baggage, catering, and fueling personnel, are hindered by a lack of complete accident data and standards for ground handling, but the aviation industry is taking steps to address these problems with the goal of reducing ramp accidents. Data from 2001 through 2006 from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which investigates occupational accidents, NTSB, and FAA indicated that these agencies had investigated 29 fatal ramp accidents during that time. The majority of the fatalities in these accidents were ramp workers. GAO found no comprehensive nonfatal injury data on ramp accidents and neither federal nor industrywide standards for ramp operations. The federal government has generally taken an indirect role overseeing ramp safety; airlines and airports typically control the ramp areas using their own policies and procedures. Meanwhile, some airlines and airports have initiated their own efforts to address ramp safety, and aviation organizations have begun collecting ramp accident data.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To advance efforts to improve runway safety, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to develop a mitigation plan for addressing controller overtime that considers options such as shift changes and incentives to attract controllers to facilities with high volumes of air traffic and high rates of controller overtime.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2007, GAO reported that at least 20 percent of the controllers at 25 air traffic control facilities, including towers at several major airports, were working 6-day weeks, which could cause fatigue, a human factors issue affecting runway safety. To improve runway safety, GAO recommended that FAA develop a mitigation plan for addressing controller overtime that considers options such as shift changes and incentives to attract controllers with high volumes of air traffic and high rates of controller overtime. In response, FAA implemented incentive programs to encourage controllers at less complex facilities to bid on vacancies at larger and more complex facilities. In August 2011, FAA indicated that from fiscal year 2008 to fiscal year 2010, the use of overtime in terminal facilities decreased from 2.9% and to 2.2%; that almost 100,000 fewer overtime hours were used in 2010 compared to 2008, with most of the decrease (85,000) occurring in terminal facilities; and that of the 34 facilities that schedule 6-day work weeks, on average, employees at only one facility were working 80 hours per pay period. FAA's efforts to reduce air traffic controller overtime help address concerns about fatigue and runway safety.

    Recommendation: To advance efforts to improve runway safety, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to develop and implement a plan to collect data on runway overruns that do not result in damage or injury for analyses of trends and causes such as the locations, circumstances, and types of aircraft involved in such incidents.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In November 2007, we reported that FAA's runway safety program lacked certain data on the causes and circumstances of runway overruns, which occur when aircraft run off the ends of runways (GAO-08-29). We reported that without additional data, FAA cannot conduct additional analysis of the causes and circumstances of runway incidents to ensure that the most effective corrective measures that address the causal factors are used. We recommended that FAA develop and implement a plan to collect data on runway overruns that do not result in damage or injury for analyses of trends and causes. In response, in January 2010, FAA's Office of Airports issued policy guidance to airport inspectors on how and what data to collect for every runway excursion, including overruns. This action could help improve runway safety.

    Recommendation: To advance efforts to improve runway safety, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to develop an implementation schedule for establishing a nonpunitive voluntary safety reporting program for air traffic controllers.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In November 2007, we reported that the Federal Aviation Administration's runway safety program lacked certain data on the causes and circumstances of runway incursions, which occur when aircraft enter the runway without authorization (GAO-08-29). We reported that without additional data, the agency cannot conduct additional analysis of the causes and circumstances of runway incidents to ensure that the most effective corrective measures that address the causal factors are used. We also reported that a voluntary reporting system for air traffic controllers would increase the amount of data available on runway incursions. We recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration develop an implementation schedule for establishing a nonpunitive voluntary reporting program for air traffic controllers. In response, in September 2009, following an 18-month demonstration period, the agency implemented the Air Traffic Safety Action Program for air traffic controllers and others to voluntarily identify and report safety operational concerns. This program could help improve runway safety.

    Recommendation: To advance efforts to improve runway safety, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to implement the FAA order establishing the Office of Runway Safety to lead the agency's runway safety efforts, including preparing a new national runway safety plan. The plan should include goals to improve runway safety; near- and longer-term actions designed to reduce the severity, number, and rate of runway incursions; timeframes and resources needed for those actions; and a continuous evaluative process to track performance towards those goals. The plan should also address the increased runway safety risk associated with the expected increased volume of air traffic.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our November 2007 runway safety report, we found that FAA had not prepared an updated national runway safety plan since 2002, despite agency policy that it be updated every 2 to 3 years, resulting in uncoordinated efforts within the agency. We recommended that FAA prepare a new national runway safety plan addressing issues such as goals to improve runway safety, actions designed to reduce the severity and frequency of runway incursions, and an evaluative process to track performance toward those goals. In response, in December 2008, FAA issued a new national runway safety plan addressing these issues.

    Recommendation: To advance efforts to improve runway safety, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to work with the aviation industry and OSHA to develop a mechanism to collect and analyze data on ramp accidents and, if the analysis shows it is warranted, develop a strategic plan aimed at reducing accidents involving workers, passengers, and aircraft in the ramp area. The plan should include a discussion of roles and responsibilities, performance measures, data collection and analysis, and milestones, and consider ramp safety practices being followed in other countries.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Open

    Comments: FAA sponsored a study under the Airport Cooperative Research Program to collect data on ramp accidents in selected domestic and foreign airports. The report is expected to be complete in January 2011. FAA is also in the process of amending Part 139 to expand the regulation to apply to the ramp area. A Rulemaking Project Record, justifying the rule, is expected to be complete by December 2010 for submittal to the FAA Rulemaking Council.

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