I can't believe that sixteen million people
have so far watched the perspective-distorted footage of the runway incursion at BCN last weekend.
What is it about airplanes that makes people so cuckoo?
Anyway, over at Ask the Pilot I've given the video a critique.
In case you don't know the story, the planes involved were an Aerolineas Argentinas A340 and a UTair 767 (the latter is a carrier based in Siberia). Apparently the Aerolineas crew crossed the runway in error, which is serious. However the camera angle greatly exaggerates how close the two aircraft came to colliding. (It's similar to to the zillions of pictures online taken at San Francisco International and other airports with closely paired runways, where parallel arriving planes are made to look like they're right on top of each other, when in fact they're safely apart.)
Meanwhile the go-around performed by the 767 was, by itself, routine. I discuss go-arounds in chapter three of <a href="http://www.askthepilot.com/CockpitConfidential/">my book. The maneuver can feel abrupt and can be frightening to nervous flyers, but it's perfectly natural for an airplane and not especially difficult for the pilots. On YouTube you can see the UTair 767 beginning the maneuver at roughly a hundred feet or so, meaning it was well prior to the runway threshold.
"Incursion" is the word we use to describe when an airplane crosses onto a runway or taxiway it shouldn't be crossing onto. Although Barcelona wasn't the near-catastrophe some have called it, I should note that worldwide the number of incursions has indeed been climbing. Not alarmingly so, but the trend is nonetheless worrying. To a large extent this is the result of increased air traffic and, at least in the United States, poor airport design. The number of commercial flights has more than doubled over the past quarter-century, <em>without</em> a corresponding overhaul or expansion of our airports.
The problem isn’t always the volume of planes per se, but the congested environments in which many of them operate. La Guardia, Boston, and JFK are among airports that were laid out decades ago for a fraction of today’s capacity. Their crisscrossing runways and lacework taxiways are inherently more hazardous than the parallel and staggered layouts seen at newer airports. That does not imply that these locations are unsafe, but they present challenges both for crews and air traffic controllers, particularly during spells of low visibility.
The FAA and pilot groups have been working on new programs and technologies to reduce the number of mistakes and/or mitigate the consequences when they occur. These include an upgrade of tarmac markings and mandatory anti-incursion training programs for pilots and controllers. Under testing are improved runway and taxiway lighting systems and an emerging, satellite-based technology known as Cockpit Display of Traffic Information (CDTI) that will provide pilots with a detailed view of surrounding traffic both aloft and during ground operations. And a growing number of airports are outfitted with sophisticated radar that tracks not only planes in the air, but those on runways and taxiways.
Those are all good ideas, but in case you didn't notice the FAA has a habit of over-engineering complicated fixes to simple problems. There will be no magic technological bullet. At heart this is a human factors issue. The agency's most valuable contribution to the problem might be something it has already done: stirred up awareness. When it comes right down to it, the best way to prevent collisions is for pilots and controllers to always be conscious of their possibility.
As for Barcelona, whether this was a crew error or an air traffic control mistake, we're not yet sure.
The full story is on my website, here...