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FAA: Serious Runway Incursions Cut In Half For Second Year In A Row; New Runway "Traffic Lights" Proving Effective

Providing some very encouraging news for frequent fliers and those concerned about aviation safety, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced last week that the number of serious runway incursions during this fiscal year dropped 50 percent from 2009, marking the second straight year where the occurrence of serious runway incursions dropped by half.

At a press event at Boston's Logan Airport detailing the announcement, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt delivered a speech (the full text is included below) hailing the decrease in incursions as "an increase in safety that would not have been possible without the concerted efforts and partnership of the aviation industry."

Babbitt defined "serious runway incursion" as a situation on the runway where a collision is narrowly avoided. The press release announcing the reduction revealed that in fiscal year 2009 (which ended on September 30 of that year), there had been 12 serious runway incursions at the nation's airports. One fiscal year later, there have only been six. A comparison of that data to fiscal year 2000, where there were 67 serious runway incursions, reveals that the efforts lauded by Babbitt appear to be making a difference on the nation's runways. Those efforts, part of a safety plan the FAA initiated years ago, include the expedited installation of new technology at airports, expanded requirements for improved signage and markings at airports, and improved pilot training on runway conflict scenarios.

The decision to hold the press conference at Logan Airport tied into the announcement by Babbitt that a new safety system called Runway Status Lights had successfully completed its testing period at the airport. Runway Status Lights warn pilots of potential runway incursions or collisions through a system of red lights that are embedded in the airfield pavement.  The lights notify pilots when it is unsafe for a pilot to enter, cross or proceed down a runway. When the red lights are activated, it is mandatory that the pilot stop and wait for clearance from air traffic control that it is safe to continue. This new technology was tested for 90 days at Logan, and is also being tested at Dallas/Ft. Worth, San Diego and Los Angeles airports.  

Babbitt said that the agency plans to add Runway Status Lights to an additional 19 of the nation's busiest airports over the next five years.

The text of Randy Babbitt's speech is listed below:

"Number of Serious Runway Incursions Cut in Half"
J. Randolph Babbitt, Logan International Airport, Boston, Massachusetts
October 8, 2010

Thank you, Laura (Brown). And thank you to everyone for coming to Logan today.

I want to share with you some very good news about runway safety in the United States. This year we have cut the number of serious runway incursions in half. It's the second year in a row we've cut the number by 50 percent.   

A serious runway incursion is when a collision is narrowly avoided.

We are down to six serious incursions in the entire country. And that is down from 67 ten years ago. This marked increase in safety would not have been possible without the concerted efforts and partnership of the aviation industry.

The FAA made a call to action in 2007 to ask the entire industry to focus on reducing runway incursions. And the entire industry really came together--airlines, pilots, air traffic controllers, airport vehicle operators, associations, management, labor and the FAA. We all worked together to reduce these occurrences. We have maintained the focus and we have cut the number.  

Our goal is to get the number down to zero.

That brings me to some great safety innovations we are rolling out in Boston.

We just finished 90 days of testing a new warning system at Logan International that will keep our runways safe. Boston is among the first airports in the country to get this new safety technology. This runway safety system consists of three types of safety lights that give pilots direct warnings about possible dangers on the runway. In a simplified explanation, the new safety lights work much like a traffic light. They warn a pilot if it's not safe to cross, enter or proceed down a runway.

Boston is the first and only airport in the country to install these lights at intersecting runways. A series of red lights embedded in the pavement at Logan will provide 3,000 feet of warning leading up to the runway intersection. If there is a potential safety problem, the red lights come on and stay on as long as the collision potential exists. You stop what you're doing and stay where you are.

Boston has added two more types of safety lights. It now joins Dallas/Fort Worth, San Diego and Los Angeles airports with these safety features. Boston added safety lights for planes leaving a taxiway and entering a runway. The lights turn red if it's not safe to enter or cross the runway.

The third type of safety lights are called takeoff hold lights. These lights turn red if it's unsafe to begin or continue to takeoff on a runway. These three types of runway status lights are going to give us an additional layer of safety. They will help us improve the exceptional work we are already doing with runway safety in this country.

By working together we have markedly reduced the serious incursions and we're making progress on all of them. We want to get at the root cause of an incursion, no matter how serious or minor, in order to improve our procedures and training. 

Why do incursions happen, you may ask? Why can't a pilot tell if a danger exists on a runway?

Ideally the air traffic controller will tell the pilot where to taxi and the correct runway to use. And ideally the pilot will hear it correctly and follow through. But we are all human. And with larger airports there is a lot more to keep track of, including vehicles and people. These lights will make it very plain that a pilot should stop and avoid the runway intersection. If you see a red light, the typical human reaction is to stop. That's the whole idea.

We plan to add runways status lights to an additional 19 of our busiest airports in the country over the next five years. These lights provide a direct and immediate indication to pilots and vehicle drivers that a potentially unsafe condition is developing and they should avoid it. 

They will help us to continually improve safety.

I'm happy that you will have the chance to board a plane today and see how they work.

Thank you for your time.

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