The Safe Landings Act: An Unnecessary Piece Of Legislation

Fox Rothschild LLP

Fox Rothschild LLPWith the enactment of the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 in October of last year, Congress, to a large extent, has taken a breather from introducing aviation legislation.  Two recent bills, however, address key aviation safety issues and merit examination – the Safe Landings Act and the Safe and Quiet Skies Act of 2019.  We discuss the Safe Landings Act in this post and will address the Safe and Quiet Skies Act of 2019 in a following post.

Safe Landings Act (H.R. 4166)

Although well-intentioned and well-meaning, the Safe Landings Act, if enacted, would impose legislative solutions to aviation safety issues that are already being addressed by the aviation industry and its regulators.  The bill is largely premised on one of its stated finding that there is a need for further “efforts to improve aviation safety [by] exam[ining] safety incidents for all possible insights.”

Although one cannot gainsay this, it ignores highly successful industry and Government efforts that have been in place for quite some time.  For example, voluntary aviation reporting systems, the work of the aviation industry-Government collaborative Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST), and data sharing efforts such as the Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing (ASIAS) program (currently comprised of 45 commercial aviation operators, 23 manufacturers and other industry organizations, including labor organizations, 98 general aviation operators, and several Government organizations) have already achieved impressive aviation safety enhancements and will continue to do so.

Introduced on August 8, 2019, by Representative Mark DeSaulnier, the Safe Landing Act addresses the taxiway overflight incident involving Air Canada flight 759, an Airbus A320-211, at San Francisco International Airport on July 7, 2017.  As a refresher: Air Canada flight 759 was cleared to land on runway 28R but instead lined up with parallel taxiway C where four airplanes carrying more that 1000 passengers (two Boeing 787s, a Boeing 737, and an Airbus A340) were awaiting clearance to take off.  Flight 759 descended to an altitude of 100 feet above ground level and overflew the first of the four airplanes. The flight crew initiated a go-around, and flight 759 reached a minimum altitude of about 60 feet above ground level and overflew the second airplane before starting to climb.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigated the incident and in its Aircraft Incident Report adopted on September 25, 2018, determined that the incident’s probable cause was:

the flight crew’s misidentification of taxiway C as the intended landing runway, which resulted from the crewmembers’ lack of awareness of the parallel runway closure due to their ineffective review of notice to airmen (NOTAM) information before the flight and during the approach briefing. Contributing to the incident were (1) the flight crew’s failure to tune the instrument landing system frequency for backup lateral guidance, expectation bias, fatigue due to circadian disruption and length of continued wakefulness, and breakdowns in crew resource management and (2) Air Canada’s ineffective presentation of approach procedure and NOTAM information.

In announcing the introduction of H.R. 4166, Representative DeSaulnier indicated that he spend two years reviewing numerous near-miss aviation accidents and held over 60 meetings to get advice and guidance from aviation industry stakeholders, including Captain “Sully” Sullenberger and the President of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Association, Captain Larry Rooney.

Key provisions of the Safe Landings Act include requirements for:

  • the FAA to implement systems that would alert both pilots and air traffic controllers if a plane is not properly aligned to land on a runway;
  • the FAA to gather data and report on under what circumstances airlines require pilots to back up visual approaches with electronic guidance to verify they are landing on the correct runway, and issue guidance on the most effective techniques;
  • the FAA to create a Task Force on Human Factors in Aviation Safety to review and provide recommendations;
  • the NOTAM system to be harmonized with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards;
  • the Government Accountability Office to do a study on the concerns some pilots have with cockpit voice recorders (CVRs), like inappropriate foreign government use, and provide recommendations to improve CVRs while protecting pilots.

After H.R. 4166’s introduction, it was referred to the House of Representatives’ Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure for further action.  To date, no further action has been taken on the bill.

As a related matter, the NTSB in its Aircraft Incident Report issued five safety recommendations to the FAA.  These recommendations and the FAA’s responses are provided below.  They reflect a serious commitment by the two agencies to work diligently to address runway incursions and further demonstrate that their efforts are proceeding well without the need for enactment of the Safe Landings Act.

NTSB: work with Part 121 carriers to assess all charted visual approaches with a required backup frequency to determine the flight management system autotuning capability within a carrier’s fleet.

> FAA: FAA’s Flight Standards Service, Flight Technologies and Procedures Division will lead a comprehensive review of FAA Order 7110.79D, Chartered Visual Flight Procedures, and related directives to determine if revisions are necessary. The FAA will also conduct internal coordination during this review to determine the full scope of required action.  The FAA anticipates providing an update to the NTSB by February 2020.

 • NTSB: Establish a group of human factors experts to review existing methods for presenting flight operations information to pilots, including flight releases and general aviation flight planning services (preflight) and aircraft communication addressing and reporting system messages and other in-flight information; create and publish guidance on best practices to organize, prioritize, and present this information in a manner that optimizes pilot review and retention of relevant information; and work with air carriers and service providers to implement solutions that are aligned with the guidance.

> FAA: This recommendation requires review, coordination, and possible action or multiple lines of business. Before we propose any plan of action, we must review this recommendation more carefully and meet with the Board to gain a better understanding of the Board’s intent with this safety recommendation. Based on this review and meeting, we will determine whether action is required and. if so, how best to proceed. We will keep the Board informed of the FAA’s progress on these safety recommendations and anticipate providing an update by February 2020.

NTSB: Establish a requirement for airplanes landing at primary airports within Class B and Class C airspace to be equipped with a system that alerts pilots when an airplane is not aligned with a runway surface.

> FAA: The FAA took initial responsive action regarding the July 7, 2017, Air Canada incident, by establishing a Safety Management System (SMS) committee to complete an analysis of wrong-surface events. Subsequently, this Safety Risk Management (SRM) team met in September 2017 to perform an analysis of the hazards associated with wrong-surface landings throughout the National Airspace System (NAS). The SRM team, which included stakeholders from several FAA lines of business and industry groups, published its Wrong Surface Landing (WSL) report in March 2018. This report contained 31 safety mitigations, 7 of which address the issue of identifying incorrect runway alignment using technology. We assigned 6 of these mitigations to the appropriate FAA lines of business using the Hazard Identification and Risk Management Tracking tool and we are conducting research to determine the possible requirements of a new rule necessitating mandatory use of these mitigations. The WSL report predicted that implementing all 31 mitigations would reduce the residual risk of wrong-surface landings by 7% for general aviation, and 6% for commercial operations. This changes the risk of a catastrophic wrong-surface landing event from extremely improbable to extremely remote for both general aviation and commercial operations. Based on this prediction, the FAA will work collaboratively with industry to implement these mitigations, although we will also evaluate this safety recommendation as a possible rulemaking project. We will keep the Board informed of the FAA’s progress on these safety recommendations and anticipate providing an update by February 2020.

NTSB: Collaborate with aircraft and avionics manufacturers and software developers to develop the technology for a cockpit system that provides an alert to pilots when an airplane is not aligned with the intended runway surface, and, once such technology is available, establish a requirement for the technology to be installed on airplanes landing at primary airports within Class B and Class C airspace.

> FAA: The FAA will work with manufacturers and industry experts to determine the feasibility of technology for a cockpit system that provides an alert to pilots when an airplane is not aligned with the intended runway surface. We anticipate completion of this review by April 2019. The FAA will then evaluate potential technical implementation paths, feasibility, and costs to assess whether rulemaking will meet Office of Management and Budget cost-benefit guidelines. I will keep the Board informed of the FAA’s progress on these safety recommendations and anticipate providing an update by February 2020.

NTSB: Modify airport surface detection equipment (ASDE) systems (ASDE-3, ASDE-X, and airport surface surveillance capability) at those locations where the system could detect potential taxiway landings and provide alerts to air traffic controllers about potential collision risks.

> FAA: The FAA is implementing an enhancement to the ASDE-X system that will alert. air traffic controllers when an aircraft aligns to a taxiway for landing. The enhancement, referred to as ASDE-X Taxiway Arrival Prediction, leverages existing Runway Arrival Prediction logic and provides a visual and aural warning to air traffic controllers when the system detects an attempted taxiway landing. The ASDE-X Taxiway Arrival Prediction alert is currently functional at Seattle, Bradley. Philadelphia, and Atlanta airports. Furthermore, we plan to implement this enhancement at all applicable ASDE-X airports by December 2020. Additionally, there are two pending enhancements to the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS): l) Approach Runway Verification and 2) Monitor an Associated Flight Plan’s Airport or Intended Landing. These enhancements will assist in early identification of wrong-surface alignments at all STARS air traffic facilities, including airports with Airport Surface Surveillance Capability. We anticipate initiating these enhancements to key site STARS facilities by May 2020. We will keep the Board informed of the FAA’s progress on these safety recommendations and anticipate providing an update by February 2020.

We will summarize the provisions of the Safe and Quiet Skies Act of 2019 soon.

[View source.]

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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