By Roopinder Tara
Airport runway crashes are increasingly common. Automated systems could address the problem.
The January 2, 2024 incident at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport involved a Japanese Airlines’ A350 landing and ramming a fuel-laden Japanese Coast Guard plane on the runway ended with all 379 people aboard the A350 safely disembarking. It’s a miracle that there weren’t more casualties — though for the Japanese Coast Guard crew on their way to bring much-needed supplies to earthquake victims, it was a disaster. Five people on the Coast Guard plane died and the captain narrowly escaped with serious injuries.
The Coast Guard plane, a Dash-8, had entered the runway from the side. The act of an aircraft, vehicle, or person on a runway occupying a runway when they should not is called a runway incursion. That’s in contrast with a runway excursion, in which an aircraft inadvertently leaves the runway by missing, overshooting, or sliding.
Airport runway incursions are akin to parking-lot fender-benders — except aircraft hurtle into airports at high speed. The A350 at Haneda is estimated to have landed at 140 mph.
Runway Incursions Taking Off
Dreaded mid-air collisions and aircraft falling out of the sky for whatever reason are far less common than runway incursions. And the latter are increasing at an alarming rate. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reported 1,732 runway incursions in 2022 (almost five a day) up from 1,574 in 2021 in the U.S. alone. A rash of incursions (almost 700) occurred in June of this year (23 a day). In Runway Incursions on the Rise: Alarming Increase in Near Misses at Airports published earlier this year in Business Traveler, several harrowing near misses and some unmitigated disasters are noted.
The worst was a March 27, 1977 runway incursion in Tenerife, the largest of Spain’s Canary Islands off the eastern coast of Africa. Pan Am flight 1736 and KLM flight 4805 collided, both Boeing 747s, left 583 passengers and crew killed. The KLM flight departed a runway without takeoff clearance and collided with the Pan Am flight taxiing on the same runway. Poor visibility due to weather was a factor in the disaster.
The FAA categorizes runway incursions based on severity:
- Category A: Serious incident with a near miss.
- Category B: Significant potential for collision requiring avoidance maneuvers.
- Category C: Ample time and distance to avoid a collision.
- Category D: Least severe — meets the definition of an incursion but with no immediate safety consequences.
The most severe incursions (not classified above) result is classified as an accident.
A Brief History of Ground Control
The first aircraft may have landed on fields and roads, but since airports were first created, it’s been the task of ground crew to prevent aircraft on the ground from colliding. The earliest air traffic controllers used binoculars to monitor airfields. But slowly, technology gave them increased capabilities. Radar, invented for military use, saw commercial flight adoption in the 1940s to let controllers “see” further through darkness and fog.
Then in 1956, an event occurred that seemed as unlikely as two neutrons colliding: A TWA Lockheed L-1049 passenger aircraft and a United Douglas DC-7 passenger aircraft collided at 20,000 feet over the Grand Canyon, resulting in 128 fatalities. The disaster spurred further development of air traffic control systems. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was launched the following year and it seized air traffic control nationwide.
The late 1950s saw the first computers in traffic control, though it took until the 1970s for computers to combine with other systems, transponders, and radar to create incursion avoidance systems.
In the 1968 best-selling novel, Airport, Arthur Hailey writes about the immense stress suffered by an air-traffic controller. Even with the day’s limited technology, the air traffic controller bears full responsibility. The controller must “get the picture” of aircraft approaching their airspace and those on the ground, an almost instinctive gift found in the best of them, only marginally helped by the available technology. The controller is constantly being tested and has close calls which take an extreme mental toll. He struggles to cope, finding the pressure relentless and his past errors perpetually haunting. He knows that one wrong decision in a split second in a snowstorm, with a damaged incoming flight, could lead to his worst mistake yet.
It took until the 1990s before GPS was incorporated into ATC systems. It wasn’t until this century that satellite-based systems started replacing ground-based communication systems.
More technology systems have been developed and deployed since then.
ASSC (ADS-B Airport Surface Surveillance Capability) System
The ASSC builds upon ASDE-X, FAA’s previous runway monitoring and control system, adding an all-weather capability. With ASSC/ASDE-X, air traffic controllers can visualize aircraft and vehicles on the airfield and approaching and departing aircraft out 5 miles in all conditions.
The systems give a view and control for departure queuing, monitor aircraft in relation to their dictated routes, and will alert controllers if there is a potential incursion.
ASSC/ASDE-X receives data from surface movement radar, multilateration units, ADS-B2, airport surveillance radar, and STARS (Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System).
The FAA is transitioning from ground-based radar to ADS-B, which relies on data from satellites.
Data is combined to display aircraft and vehicle movement which can be transmitted to pilots’ displays.
ASSC/ASDE-X will also transmit to Surveillance Broadcast Services (SBS), Data Distribution via SWIM/STDDS, Runway Status Lights (RWSL)3 and Terminal Flight Data Manager (TFDM).
The ASSC/ASDE-X system is operating at these airports and is planned for Joint Base Andrews (ADW) “over the next few years.”
- Anchorage (ANC)
- Cincinnati (CVG)
- Cleveland (CLE)
- Kansas City (MCI)
- New Orleans (MSY)
- Pittsburgh (PIT)
- Portland (PDX)
- San Francisco (SFO)
Airport Surface Detection Equipment, Model X (ASDE-X)
ASDE-X rolled out in the year 2000 and is still in operation at the following airports:
- Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI)
- Boston Logan International Airport (BOS)
- Bradley International Airport (BDL)
- Chicago Midway Airport (MDW)
- Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD)
- Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT)
- Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW)
- Denver International Airport (DEN)
- Detroit Metro Wayne County Airport (DTW)
- Fort Lauderdale / Hollywood Airport (FLL)
- General Mitchell International Airport (MKE)
- George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH)
- Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL)
- Honolulu International Airport (HNL)
- John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK)
- John Wayne — Orange County Airport (SNA)
- LaGuardia Airport (LGA)
- Lambert St. Louis International Airport (STL)
- Las Vegas McCarran International Airport (LAS)
- Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)
- Louisville International Airport-Standiford Field (SDF)
- Memphis International Airport (MEM)
- Miami International Airport (MIA)
- Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport (MSP)
- Newark International Airport (EWR)
- Orlando International Airport (MCO)
- Philadelphia International Airport (PHL)
- Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX)
- Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA)
- San Diego International Airport (SAN)
- Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC)
- Seattle Tacoma International Airport (SEA)v
- Theodore Francis Green State Airport (PVD)
- Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD)
- William P. Hobby Airport (HOU)
Autonomous Runway Incursion Warning Systems (ARIWS)
ARIWS is another system that powers runway lights. Instead of using ASDE-X, it has its own independent surveillance employing multilateration, radar, and camera inputs.
Surface Movement Guidance and Control System (SMGCS)
SMGCS is a real-time mapping of aircraft and vehicles on airfields developed by EUROCONTROL, a company that does research, development, and validation for EASA, Europe’s equivalent of the FAA.
Technology Missing in Action
According to transcripts of the conversation between flight control and the crew of the Japan Coast Guard aircraft revealed in Aviation Week, the pilot of the Coast Guard aircraft is told to move to the marked stopping point “above C-5” taxiway. The pilot repeats the instruction to the controller. However, the aircraft turns left onto the runway for taxiway C-4B and waits there for almost 50 seconds — at which time it is struck by the JAL flight which has just touched down and is moving at an estimated 140 mph.
We don’t know what the Coast Guard pilot was thinking but his actions are consistent with someone who mistakenly thought they had reached the suggested stopping point and didn’t know they were on a live runway.
If so, it was indeed a tragic mistake. But it raises some questions about procedure and technology or lack of it.
- Why was the Coast Guard plane undetected by air traffic control, in harm’s way for almost a minute?
- How did the Coast Guard pilot mistake a taxiway for a runway?
- Where was the technology that would have detected an aircraft not where it should have been?
We cannot find any indication of systems as advanced as the FAA’s AASC or ASDE-X installed at Haneda Airport. Aviation Week found a notice that stated as late as February, several airfield aids at Haneda were out of service, including embedded stop lights on the C-5 taxiway and centerline lights on the runway. Whether they were operational at the time of the accident is yet to be determined.
Another document shows Haneda uses surface movement radar, which would have located the aircraft even if controllers could not see it in the dark.
The accident occurred at night. A veteran pilot on FlyerTalk.com thinks the Airbus A350 pilot may never have seen the smaller Dash 8 on the runway.
“When landing at night, it is very difficult to see another aircraft on the runway. Another aircraft on this runway right here [pointing to a map to Haneda’ runway] especially pointed away from you would just have a pair of nav lights, maybe one red rotating beacon on board and a taillight — very hard to see as it would just be a dark spot in all those [runway] lights,” he says.
In the video of the crash, perhaps taken from the tower and the vantage of air traffic control, the Dash 8 is not visible at all — until it bursts into flame from the impact with the A350.
Automatic Incursion Avoidance
In an effort to standardize, the aviation industry has settled on English as the language of all cockpit/ATC conversations. Still, there is a chance of miscommunication in the back and forth between pilots and air traffic control leading to runway incursion.
The FAA, acknowledging runway incursions as a growing threat, issued an advisory in 2012 that sought to remove any confusion as to pulling up short of a runway or creating an incursion by suggesting the cabin crew repeat the instructions from ATC to each other and to seek clarification from ATC if still unclear to go/no go. FAA jurisdiction only covers US airspace though it appears that the Coast Guard pilot was complying. Japan’s equivalent to the FAA is the JCAD (Japan Civil Aviation Bureau).
Even with the technology available to automate runway control, airports maintain a man-in-the-middle approach, unwilling to entrust full automation of runway intersections such as we have with traffic lights on our roads and intersections fully controlled automatically. Only when traffic lights fail are police sometimes called in to direct traffic. Why should air traffic on a runway be any different?
Technology conservatives may argue the speeds are much greater and the distances larger than those associated with ground vehicles … but we have radar to address that fact. Most smart road intersections function fine with cameras as their only sensors. One might argue that the risks are greater with airplanes carrying more passengers per vehicle, but overall, roadway traffic lights control orders of magnitude more traffic than air traffic controllers.
With a multi-sensor approach (radar, LiDAR, cameras both visual and infrared), the appropriate software for synthetic vision (shape detection), and AI (behavior prediction, such as found in autonomous vehicles) there’s no technical reason why automated traffic control wouldn’t work.
How Much for Safety?
Cost is often cited as a reason airports fail to implement runway safety systems. The first ASDE-X system cost $28.7 million, according to a 2007 US Department of Transportation report. The cost of outfitting all 35 airports listed above with ASDE-X was projected to be $550 million. According to MITRE, only 8% of airports with towers employ ASDE or ASSC systems.
MITRE has a second prototype of a potentially much less expensive runway monitoring and control system – though it does not say how much. The company’s Argos app (named after the hundred-eyed giant from Greek mythology) gives air traffic controllers turn-by-turn runway instructions on an iPad. Argos picks routes but controllers can choose alternate routes by swiping on the screen. They can also send the route to pilots, who can in turn view it on the aircraft’s navigation system. Argos alerts the controller if an aircraft strays from a dictated path by tracking aircraft position via low-cost ADS-B devices.
“We’ve also used speech recognition technology to help ensure pilots and controllers are on the same page about the route before the aircraft moves. That can help prevent the errors that might slip through today’s radio-based ‘readback’ process, which is used even at airports with surface radar,” says John Hellenberg on MITRE’s website on September 6, 2023.
Honeywell has been working with Airbus, Dassault, and EUROCONTROL since 2018 to develop another runway monitoring and control system. It is designed to give pilots both a visual and audio warning.
Jim Currier, head of Honeywell’s Aerospace Technologies division, told Reuters the system passed testing in December and ought to be certified and available to airlines over the next few years.
Dash 8 Entered Runway Without Permission Before Haneda Accident, ATC Transcript Shows, Sean Broderick Chen Chuanren Aviation Week and Space Technology, January 03, 2024
Federal Aviation Administration: faa.gov/airports/runway_safety/resources
SKYbrary Aviation Safety: faa.gov/airports/runway_safety/resources/runway_incursions
1. Multilateration is a technology that uses ground stations to triangulate the exact position of aircraft equipped with transponders, computing the time difference of arrival (TDoA) of a signal emitted from the object to three or more receivers, to pinpoint the location of aircraft with greater accuracy than radar alone — especially in low-visibility conditions.
2. Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) is a technology that receives positional data from aircraft and satellites and automatically broadcasts it to air traffic control sans human activation or intervention.
3. RWSL is a fully automatic light system for pilots and vehicles on the airfield. Think of it as traffic except they are embedded in the tarmac — and simpler. If the lights are red, the pilot is not to enter or cross the runway. RSWL acquires data primarily from ASDE-X. Perfected by MIT Lincoln Laboratory with USAF and FAA funding, RSWL was found to prevent or mitigate 75% of the most dangerous runway incursions.
Filed Under: Industry regulations, Uncategorized