Small Operator Safety

Flight Crews

Feb. 10, 2020

The FAA and industry work towards reducing wrong-surface incidents.

The FAA and industry are working together to reduce wrong-surface incidents, which occur when an aircraft takes off from or lands on an incorrect runway or taxiway, or even at a wrong airport.

While several of these mishaps have been high-profile incidents involving airlines – including the 2006 Comair crash in Lexington, KY, and the 2017 event in which an Air Canada airliner nearly landed on a taxiway at San Francisco International Airport – GA operations make up 85% of wrong-surface incidents, and the FAA says they occur about once a day in the U.S.

Jim Fee, the FAA’s runway safety manager, explained this in part by saying, “Business aviation is uniquely exposed to the full gamut of our air-space system, from the biggest airports with the most advanced technology systems that aid pilots’ situational awareness, to locations that are typically intended just for general aviation and don’t have a lot of tools to provide situational awareness.”

No airport is immune to wrong-surface events, which happen at the busiest airports and at some of the smallest. Fee calls wrong-surface operations “a national risk across the entire system.”
Surprisingly, data indicates these incidents tend to occur during daylight visual meteorological conditions with good visibility, which suggest complacency may be a factor.

Airport layouts, including parallel or offset parallel runways, as well asconstruction projects and unusual lighting, are contributing factors to wrong-surface incidents. Airports that are close to each other and have similar runway alignments due to prevailing winds are also factors.

Bridget Singratanakul, a runway safety representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, warns pilots to be cognizant of “expectation bias,” which occurs when a pilot is given one set of instructions during initial contact with a controller and then the instructions are revised due to changing weather or airport conditions.

This bias also can occur when a pilot expects a particular runway assignment due to previous experiences at an air-port. Singratanakul reminds pilots to be attentive to the controller’s final instructions and ready for potential changes.

Pilots also are reminded to use their full call sign and full landing clearance, including landing runway assignment, when responding to ATC.

“If you have any doubt about your landing or departure runway, ask the controller for clarification,” suggests Singratanakul.
In the end, the best way to reduce the risk of wrong-surface incidents is to be prepared.

“Complacency is our biggest challenge,” said Alex Gertsen, NBAA’s director of airports and ground infrastructure.

“Pilots get comfortable and don’t review airport diagrams, or they assume that since they’ve been to an airport before, they know the layout.

“We encourage pilots to tune-in the instrument approach when available to help aid in alignment with the correct runway,” added Gertsen. “Pilots also should carefully review NOTAMs before each flight to be sure they are familiar with construction projects and other changes on the surface and use mov-ing-map displays when maneuvering on the ground.”