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Highlights

Takeoffs, landings, and movement around the surface areas of airports (the terminal area) are critical to the safe and efficient movement of air traffic. The nation's aviation system is arguably the safest in the world, but close calls involving aircraft or other vehicles at or near airports are common, occurring almost daily. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) provides oversight of the terminal area and has taken action to improve safety, but has been called upon by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and others to take additional steps to improve its oversight. As requested, this report addresses (1) recent actions FAA has taken to improve safety in the terminal area, (2) recent trends in terminal area safety and factors contributing to those trends, and (3) any additional actions FAA could take to improve safety in the terminal area. To address these issues, GAO analyzed data from FAA data; reviewed reports and FAA documents; and interviewed federal and industry officials.

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Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Transportation 1. To enhance oversight of terminal area safety to include the range of incidents that pose risks to aircraft and passengers, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to develop and implement plans to track and assess runway excursions and extend oversight to ramp safety.
Closed - Implemented
In 2011, we reported that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had not given runway excursions the same level of attention as incursions. Specifically, FAA's Office of Runway Safety had focused on improving safety by reducing the number and severity of runway incursions, but risk management involves collecting meaningful data about other types of incidents as well, notably runway excursions. Runway incursions involve the incorrect presence of an aircraft, vehicle, or person on a runway, and runway excursions generally occur when an aircraft veers off or overruns a runway. However, excursions can be as dangerous as incursions; according to research by the Flight Safety Foundation, excursions have resulted in more fatalities than incursions globally. FAA reported plans to start tracking and assessing excursions by developing a data collection instrument and performance metrics that would enable it to collect and evaluate excursion data, and reported that these efforts could take several years to implement. However, we reported that without meaningful data to assess risks posed by excursions, FAA and its safety partners are hampered in their ability to identify risk, develop mitigation strategies, and track outcomes--which are also needed for airport safety management system implementation plans. Therefore, we recommended that the Secretary of Transportation direct the FAA Administrator to develop and implement plans to track and assess runway excursions. In 2015, we confirmed that since our report was issued, FAA has developed and implemented a plan to track and assess runway excursions. FAA developed a definition for runway excursion as "a veer off or overrun off the runway surface." FAA has established notification and process requirements to ensure excursions are properly reported and investigated, as well as developed a risk-based classification system to improve data collection and analysis. As of January 2015, FAA had collected information on more than 540 runway excursions. With information about excursions, FAA and its safety partners will be able to identify risk, develop mitigation strategies, and track outcomes.
Department of Transportation 2. To enhance oversight of terminal area safety to include the range of incidents that pose risks to aircraft and passengers, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to develop separate risk-based assessment processes, measures, and performance goals for runway safety incidents (including both incursions and excursions) involving commercial aircraft and general aviation and expand the existing risk-based process for assessing airborne losses of separation to include incidents beyond those that occur between two or more radar-tracked aircraft.
Closed - Implemented
Takeoffs, landings, and movement around the surface areas of airports (the terminal area) are critical to the safe and efficient movement of air traffic. The nation's aviation system is arguably the safest in the world, but close calls involving aircraft or other vehicles at or near airports are common, occurring almost daily. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) provides oversight of the terminal area and has taken action to improve safety, but has been called upon by the National Transportation Safety Board and others to take additional steps to improve its oversight. In 2011, GAO reported that enhanced oversight and additional information about surface and airborne incidents could help improve safety in the terminal area. FAA oversight in the terminal area is currently limited to certain types of incidents, notably runway incursions and certain airborne incidents. As GAO noted in a 2010 report, FAA has embarked on a data-driven, risk-based safety oversight approach. As part of this effort, FAA has established a new, risk-based measure to track losses of separation--a violation of FAA's required distance between aircraft--but measures for runway incursions are not risk based, reflecting instead a simple count of incidents. Thus, FAA currently rates the severity of incursions based on proximity and the response time to avoid a collision did not distinguish between commercial and general aviation in its performance measures for runway incursions, which typically involve the incorrect presence of an aircraft, vehicle, or person on a runway. However, risks posed by runway safety incidents to passengers and aircraft in the national airspace system are different for commercial aircraft and general aviation, which encompasses all civil aviation except scheduled passenger and cargo operations (i.e., commercial) and excludes military operations. Most runway incursions at towered airports involved general aviation aircraft from fiscal year 2001 through the second quarter of 2011. These aircraft make up nearly a third of total operations at towered airports but have consistently accounted for about 60 percent of runway incursions. Additionally, FAA's Office of Runway Safety acknowledged that general aviation has caused more runway incursions, but without performance measures that reflect risk, FAA may not be able identify appropriate mitigation strategies to address the large proportion of runway incidents involving general aviation aircraft. Accordingly, GAO recommended that the FAA Administrator develop separate risk-based assessment processes, measures, and performance goals for runway safety incidents involving commercial aircraft and general aviation. In May 2016, GAO confirmed that FAA had developed separate commercial and general aviation metrics and goals and will begin reporting the newly developed goals in the agency's quarterly Performance Scorecard in fiscal year 2017. As a result, FAA should be in a better position to focus individually on the risk posed by incursions by large commercial aircraft, as well as the risk posed by an ever-increasing incursion rate among general aviation operations. Action taken by: Agency
Department of Transportation 3. To enhance oversight of terminal area safety to include the range of incidents that pose risks to aircraft and passengers, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to develop plans to ensure that information about terminal area safety incidents, causes, and risk assessment is meaningful, complete, and available to appropriate decision makers.
Closed - Implemented
FAA is in the process of implementing a data-driven, risk-based approach to safety oversight that the agency expects will help it continuously improve safety by identifying hazards, assessing and mitigating risk, and measuring performance. Using a safety management system approach, the agency is using aviation safety data to identify conditions that could lead to incidents, allowing it to address risks proactively. In 2011, GAO reported that safety in the terminal area is a shared responsibility among FAA, airlines, pilots, and airports, and there are a number of FAA offices that either collect or analyze terminal area incident data, but useful access to complete and meaningful data was limited. According to FAA officials we interviewed at the regional level, for example, it was difficult for supervisors at the regional and facility levels to obtain information on incident trends specific to their area of supervision in part because key databases, such as the Air Traffic Quality Assurance database (ATQA), did not have the capability to allow regional supervisors to run region- or facility-specific data queries. In addition, while multiple data resources may be available, officials stated that information on incidents was scattered, and no central source existed where employees could identify available data resources. While FAA had made advances in the quantity and comprehensiveness of the data it collected on incidents in the terminal area, officials stated that the agency faced difficulty in developing sophisticated databases with which to perform queries and modeling of the data. According to FAA officials we spoke to at the time, the full implementation of the Comprehensive Electronic Data Analysis and Reporting (CEDAR)--a new system for terminal area data collection which would include data from ATQA--would address many of the deficiencies identified by regional and local offices, including data access. Accordingly, GAO recommended that the FAA Administrator develop plans to improve information sharing about terminal area safety incidents. In March 2016, GAO confirmed that the implementation of CEDAR included access to safety data for key regional- and facility-specific data queries, including officials at core airports and regional air traffic control facilities, such as en route centers and terminal radar approach control (TRACON) facilities. CEDAR provides an electronic means of capturing safety related information and metrics to these decisions makers. Together with other enhancements to the quality and completeness of data, including the inclusion of more types of safety incidents made in response to other recommendations, this improved access to complete and meaningful data on terminal area safety incidents will enhance the ability of decision makers such as local and regional FAA officials to oversee terminal area safety for the range of incidents that pose risks to aircraft and passengers.

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