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Enhanced situational awareness design cuts down near misses on the airfield

July 3, 2024 · Insights

by Matt Thomason, AICP, CM, PE

Situational awareness at airports

How to Improve Situational Awareness by Design

It was an event that reverberated inside and outside of the aviation industry. 

A cargo plane on approach to land at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Texas nearly collided with a passenger plane that had been cleared for take-off on the same runway. Only the last-minute evasive action from the pilot of the cargo plane prevented a catastrophic event. 

The ensuing investigation examined a number of factors influencing the event. Among them included lack of ground technology for air traffic controllers to monitor traffic on the taxi and runways as well as lack of physical visibility from the tower 200 feet above the ground to a fog-hidden airfield. 

Any discussion of airport safety must begin with the acknowledgement that, statistically speaking, aviation is by far the safest mode of transportation in the United States. That is due to an unprecedented collaborative effort between government, airplane manufacturers, airport operators, and airport engineers and designers who all set a goal of zero fatalities in air travel. The incorporation of technology and sensors both inside and outside the plane and in the control towers has elevated how safely airplanes can operate in an increasingly crowded environment both in the air and on the ground.

Even general aviation facilities, which do not benefit as greatly from the Part 139 oversight, or extensive technological investment that commercial airports enjoy, can greatly enhance safety through easily implementable design alterations that will reduce incursions, incidents and accidents.

Yet, as the incident in February in Austin illustrated, airport and airplane operations are still a human activity. For all of the technology that can be incorporated in and outside of the cockpit to mitigate human error, airports still need to be designed for human activity since what is being moved in, through and out of an airport are humans. 

Unfortunately, the case from Austin is not an outlier. Workforce challenges in the cockpit, as well as the tower, have created significant turnover and shortages in staffing and experience. Aging technology and infrastructure also challenge airport operations at a time when passenger traffic has rebounded to near all-time highs. The convergence of all of these factors puts new pressure on that collaborative group to question the collective responsibility to safe operations and how safety can be enhanced in the next phase of aviation travel. 

Team approach to safety

Airplanes are designed primarily to fly – a remarkable achievement in physics but one that leaves them limited and cumbersome when making the transition from land to air. As a design vehicle, aircraft are at their weakest on the ground, which is why it is not surprising that the majority of aviation accidents occur at or near the airport. 

If you envision an airplane as strictly a ground-design vehicle, it leaves much to be desired. The aircraft’s length, width/height, and wheelbase make them unwieldy for any type of maneuvering other than straight. They require great impulse thrust to even get in motion. They don’t play nice with grade changes and have obstructed lines of sight. They can’t even go in reverse!

Therefore, an airport’s purpose is to transition a plane from the ground to the air and back down again. Through their layout and geometry, they are designed to maximize safety, while increasing efficiency of airport operations. 

Nearly 50 years of data show that more than 60% of all aviation accidents/incidents occur on and near the airport environ. This includes accidents occurring during ramp and taxi operations, takeoff, initial climb, as well as approach and landing. Even though sentinel events are rare in the U.S., even a wing clip can have a significant ripple effect within the entire system: It can take that plane out of service and create delays for dozens of flights across the nation.

For more information on airport planning and airport management, contact Matt Thomason.