Runway Safety Action Teams- Coming Soon to An Airport Near You!

By now you’ve no doubt seen the video from Barcelona Spain, purporting to show a runway incursion that resulted in a Boeing 767 performing a low altitude go-around.  While the jury is apparently still out on whether that clip shows an actual incursion, here in the U.S. the FAA continues to press airports to minimize incursions and improve airfield safety.  One of the FAA’s primary mechanisms for helping airports do so are “Runway Safety Action Teams” (RSAT), and if you haven’t had an RSAT visit or meeting at your busy or complex airport, odds are you will in the near future.

So what, exactly is an incursion?  The FAA formally defines an incursion as “any occurrence at an airport involving the incorrect presence of an aircraft, vehicle, or person on the protected area of a surface designated for the landing and takeoff of aircraft.”  Incursions are further classified as operational incidents, pilot deviations or vehicle/pedestrian deviations:
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In an effort to minimize these incursions, FAA RSAT teams are tasked with “uniting those individuals and organizations that are actively involved in air traffic operations and movement of aircraft, vehicles and equipment on the Airport Operations Area (AOA). We  [FAA] look for participation from all major airport interests including tenants, fixed base operators, airport operations and maintenance personnel. Participants are asked to help develop recommendations and solutions to enhance surface safety. Those recommendations serve as the foundation for a site-specific Runway Safety Action Plan.”

So as a GA aircraft owner/pilot, why should you care?  Quite simply, the recommendations of an RSAT team are formalized in a Runway Safety Action Plan, which carries great weight, particularly at federally obligated airports that have accepted FAA airport improvement grant funds.   Absent broad user input, the Runway Safety Action Plan may include restrictions, procedures or airfield configuration changes that could have a signifcant impact on how you operate at your airport.  Fortunately, one of the most common RSAT recommendations is relatively straightforward- the identification and publication of airport surface “hot spots” where incursions are most likely to occur or have occurred.  These “hot-spots” are identified on airfield diagrams with a red circle, number and description, and airports with “hot-spots” are identified by FAA region at this FAA webpage- is yours one of them?

Here’s a quick case study of how an RSAT team recommendation might have had a signficant impact.  In a previous life, I worked at a very busy and confined single runway commercial service airport with extensive GA activity.  At this particular airport, a large portion of the primary (and only) parallel taxiway, was a contiguous piece of pavement with the non-movement area aircraft ramp, a configuration necessary to meet FAA runway/taxiway separation standards.  The only separation and delineation between the taxiway/movement area and ramp/non-movement area were painted markings- a red line (which quickly faded to pink) and the movement area boundary (below).

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GA ramp contiguous with and extremely close to an active taxiway/movement area.

This airfield configuration, combined with a congested ramp and limited space, frequently resulted in GA pilots and passengers losing situational awareness and driving or walking onto the movement area and taxiway-  yep, a vehicle/ pedestrian incursion, even if no aircraft was nearby on the taxiway.  After a rash of these in a very short period of time, our airport was the subject of a special RSAT team visit, and one of the FAA’s preferred solutions was a complete prohibition of private vehicles anywhere on the airport ramp- clearly an unfeasible and unworkable solution.

But thanks to a proactive effort by airport staff to engage airport tenants in our RSAT meetings, along with a very engaged airport/user tenant group, we were able to collaboratively develop alternatives to this draconian proposal, reducing incursions and improving airfield safety without compromising users’ ability to efficiently and conveniently access their aircraft.

So will an RSAT team be coming to your airport?  RSAT teams are deployed by FAA region, and will typically focus first on the busiest or most complex airports, or those with a documented history of incursions.  While the FAA does not apparently publish a list of airports slated for RSAT visits, check with your airport manager, who will be the first to know at your airport.  If an RSAT meeting is scheduled, be sure to attend so you can weigh in with your experiences, thoughts and suggestions to improve safety at your airport without compromising its utility.  Without airport tenant and user engagement and input, RSAT meetings will not be as effective, and could result in local operational or procedural changes that are unduly costly or burdensome, or unreasonably limit access to your airport.