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Teamwork Can Help Prevent Runway Incursions

Several high-profile runway incursion events over the past year are a reminder for pilots to deepen their understanding of proper airport ground movement and radio procedures to stay on top of their game.

Rosa Lee Argotsinger, head of the NBAA Safety Committee’s Single-Pilot Safety Operational Challenges Working Group and vice president, flight operations for Textron Aviation, noted this isn’t a new issue. The FAA issued a call to action on runway safety back in 2007, with a focus on runway incursions.

“This is less about piloting skill and more about recognizing we are humans with relatively short attention spans.”

Rosa Lee Argotsinger, Head of NBAA Safety Committee Single-Pilot Safety Operational Challenges Working Group and Vice President, Flight Operations Textron Aviation

“We did see some improvement across the industry as a result,” she said, “but a 2011 FAA SAFO cited a reversal of that positive trend.

“Situation awareness is really the key here,” Argotsinger continued. “This is less about piloting skill and more about recognizing we are humans with relatively short attention spans. Procedures are what ultimately help insulate us from these kinds of errors.”

That begins with a thorough understanding of airport layout and ATC procedures. Bridget Singratanakul, national runway safety representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), emphasized how closely runway safety and communications are linked.

“The very basic component of communication is just understanding one another,” she said. “Pilots should be diligent and ensure they interpret clearances correctly. Errors have occurred when pilots believed they were complying with a clearance they did not receive.”

Complicated taxi routes, parallel runways and other factors can also lead to pilot confusion.

“Preflight briefings are highly important,” said Marty Plumleigh, NBAA Safety Committee lead for runway safety issues. “Look for details of what’s going on at the airport and listen for anything that may hinder your ability to understand what ATC wants you to do. Take your time,” he said.

“The very simple act of writing down clearances and using an airport diagram during taxi offers a visual aid to work from,” said Argotsinger. “Imagine you’re in a restaurant and the wait staff takes your order without writing it down. Do you feel nervous about getting exactly what you ordered? The same is true on the flight deck.”

Even when operating from your home field or an often visited airport, “Familiarity can often breed contempt and slack behavior,” Plumleigh cautioned. “You might have confirmation bias of what you expect to hear from ATC. If they tell you something different and that doesn’t register, you’ll resort to muscle memory. That can put you and somebody else in great danger.”

Fostering greater understanding between pilots and ATC can also drive improved safety. In addition to outreach to flight operations and industry groups like NBAA, Singratanakul noted that NATCA and the FAA work together to develop and refine the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge, available on the FAA’s website.

Controllers also participate in runway safety meetings and conduct tower tours for pilots where available, she added, to help pilots understand the complexities of each other’s positions.

“We’re a team, and we gain respect for one another by spending time together and communicating with each other,” Singratanakul said.

“There were approximately 54.3 million takeoffs and landings at U.S.-towered airports in fiscal year 2023, and ATC spoke with pilots approximately eight times over each arrival or departure,” she said. “Each interaction represented a potential incursion on that piece of pavement, but teamwork ensures we’re able to maintain a safe and efficient system.”

Review NBAA’s runway safety resources at nbaa.org/runway-safety.

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