Fort Worth, TX – Bill Zeeble, KERA 90.1 reporter: FAA officials readily declare U.S. aviation the safest in the world. 600,000 pilots perform 68 million takeoffs and landings every year, at 464 airports where a million people are authorized to operate ground vehicles. There were only about 320 runway incursions last year, some in bad weather. But pilots, like this 16-year veteran who did not want his name or company mentioned, say many could've been avoided.
Anonymous pilot #1: Flying isn't the problem. It's when you're on the ground and landed in this weather that it becomes a problem
Zeeble: This pilot flies for one of the nation's top three airlines. He says runway signs and markings are neither standard nor even correct from airport to airport. They should be. And some signs are missing.
Pilot #1: It's easy to get confused on which taxiway you're on, where the hold short lines are...
Zeeble: A hold short line is the equivalent of a stop sign.
Pilot #1: ...so you won't taxi out onto an active runway - prevents collisions on the ground.
Zeeble: The FAA's current policy says when a plane lands, it can proceed across an intersecting runway unless given a specific hold short, or stop, order. Southwest Airlines, with a near- flawless safety record over more than a quarter-century in business, thinks that's too dangerous and won't do it, according the carrier's chief technical pilot, David Keeling.
David Keeling, Chief Technical Pilot for Southwest Airlines: Given the volume of traffic, the default should shift to, "you stop when you come to a runway." To go, "It's OK to proceed with something as long as you don't hear otherwise," seems to be flawed.
Zeeble: The FAA acknowledges the concern, but says it's not a flawed policy at airports like DFW.
Doug Murphy, Air Traffic Division Manager, Federal Aviation Administration: We use seven runways daily. When you start crossing those runways, it heightens the possibility of runway incursions.
Zeeble: Doug Murphy is the FAA's Air Traffic Division Manager.
Murphy: So it requires controllers and pilots to be ever more vigilant. It's a very safe operation.
Zeeble: That's just one of many runway safety issues. Language is another, especially when flying into a foreign region, like South America, according to the pilots who wouldn't give their names.
Anonymous Pilot #2: You can have someone else reporting a hazard or something like that, and they'll report it in Spanish and they'll never repeat it to you in English, so you don't understand it. Anonymous Pilot #1: International authorities say they're supposed to be using English as a primary language and they're not doing it all the time.
Zeeble: Pilots also worry about pushing their microphone button just when another pilot does. Instead of getting an air traffic controller, they get a squeal. They'd like an onboard computer map showing their taxi route, with a response button signaling they've received the map. That could eliminate at least one radio contact. FAA officials say they're currently developing this so- called data link technology and expect to see it in cockpits in the next few years. Pilots and carriers say there's another issue worth more consideration. A recent policy change no longer requires air traffic controllers to correct a pilot if a clearance is read incorrectly.
Pilot #1: So here you are going off fat, dumb, and happy, and you could be going in the wrong direction, climbing to the wrong altitude whatever, and they're not responsible to tell you you just made a mistake. If we miss something, they should tell us.
Zeeble: FAA officials will hear about this and other runway safety suggestions today in Fort Worth. Nine other meetings are scheduled around the country, with a gathering of all the information planned for a three-day June session in Washington. For KERA 90.1, I'm Bill Zeeble.