Preliminary statistics indicate that 2023 was one of the safest years on record for commercial aviation, with no reported fatal accidents involving large commercial jet aircraft in regular service. But the lack of fatalities in scheduled service is only part of the story. In addition to fatal accidents involving other types of commercial operations, including scheduled turboprop aircraft operations, we saw a disturbing increase in the number of runway incursion events. In the United States alone, there were nearly two dozen occurrences, including one at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Texas last February, when a landing FedEx Boeing 767 nearly collided with a Southwest 737 that had just begun its takeoff roll on the same runway.
In the Austin incident, a last-minute evasive maneuver by the crew flying the 767 averted a potential disaster. Luckily, none of the other reported incidents resulted in an accident, either. But that luck ran out on Jan. 2, 2024, when a Japan Airlines Airbus A350 collided with a much smaller Japan coast guard aircraft that had taxied onto the runway at Tokyo Haneda Airport. All 379 passengers and crew on the A350 evacuated safely, but five of the six people on the coast guard ATR 72 died in the fiery collision.
The investigations into the Haneda accident and the runway incursion close calls in Austin and elsewhere in 2023 are ongoing, but a close look at the narratives for each event reveals some common threads, including potential failures in pilot-air traffic control communication, runway coordination or air traffic management, and lack of situational awareness.
In mid-December, the Foundation released the Global Action Plan for the Prevention of Runway Incursions (GAPPRI). One of the high-level findings in the GAPPRI report centers on variability in human performance. Pilots, air traffic controllers and personnel who drive trucks and other airport vehicles on runways, taxiways and ramps must adapt to varying pressures and workloads in a complex operational environment. This adaptability contributes to the safe functioning of the system, but in certain conditions, it also can lead to issues such as distraction, miscommunication, misidentification, or misapplication of operational processes, which can result in serious incidents.
Other findings outlined in the GAPPRI report, which was produced in coordination with EUROCONTROL, CANSO, the International Air Transport Association, Airports Council International and the International Civil Aviation Organization, include a lack of systemwide collision avoidance barriers, degraded runway status awareness, and challenges in surface navigation.
Runway incursions are not a new issue; rather, they are among the most persistent threats to aviation safety and have been for years. Incursions impact every level of aviation, from weekend pleasure flying in single engine pistons to large, integrated international passenger operations carrying millions of passengers a year.
Runway incursions will be a continuing focus of the Foundation in 2024, and we strongly encourage other industry stakeholders, including operators, airports, air navigation service providers and ground handling organizations, to redouble their efforts to mitigate this ongoing risk before tragedy strikes again.