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.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Department of Transportation||1. 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.|
|Department of Transportation||2. 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.|
|Department of Transportation||3. 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.|
|Department of Transportation||4. 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.|
|Department of Transportation||5. 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.|