Airline Safety Features Are Often Turned Off
BY ANDREW TANGEL
Technology to alert pilots of potential runway crashes is widely available. Audible warnings and text alerts to help avert catastrophe on the tarmac are often standard features on new aircraft.
In many cases, those features aren’t turned on.
Regulators have been reluctant to require their use. Some pilot groups have pushed for airlines to adopt such features, but carriers have had doubts about their benefits and costs.
“There are solutions right now,” Capt. Steve Jangelis, a top union official in the Air Line Pilots Association, said at a runway-safety forum earlier this year.
The U.S. hasn’t had a major fatal passenger airline crash in 14 years, but runway-safety alerts for pilots are getting renewed attention after a spate of serious close calls at U.S. airports.
U.S. air-safety and some industry officials are weighing whether to add more cockpit protections as pilot and air-traffic controller workforces navigate a surge in postpandemic flying, while airlines ramp up reminders to pilots about existing procedures.
The Federal Aviation Administration said in September it would seek recommendations from industry groups on a potential mandate for cockpit technology that could alert pilots before they take off or land on the wrong runway or on a taxiway.
Delta Air Lines and Air Canada said they are expanding the use of some cockpit features in their fleets, and United Airlines is considering adding another such alert.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which takes the lead investigating U.S. plane crashes, has recommended the FAA make mandatory alerts that warn pilots of runways too short for safe landings. That recommendation came after eight people died in a business-jet crash south of Minneapolis in 2008. The FAA later told the safety board that Boeing, Airbus and other plane manufacturers planned to install such alerts voluntarily, and no mandate was needed.
Airbus said it began rolling out its own runway overrun protection system in 2009, activating it automatically on new jets. Boeing left it to airlines to decide whether to activate a Boeing-designed feature or separate Honeywell-made alerts. Many alerts aren’t activated. “That’s ridiculous,” NTSB chair Jennifer Homendy said in an interview.
An FAA spokesman said: “We have achieved our unprecedented safety record by implementing multiple layers of redundant technology, processes and procedures, and we are always looking at what else we can do.”
The FAA sometimes avoids making new rules if companies are voluntarily addressing a problem, partly because rule making can take more than 18 months to resolve and face court challenges.
Airlines, pilots and engineers have differing opinions on what cockpit features, such as heads-up displays and moving maps, are best to help pilots stay safe on runways. Some airlines and pilots worry alerts could become nuisance warnings that pilots ignore.
Some airlines have pointed to cost as a factor in not activating the alerts, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Honeywell said its system is on nearly all new Boeing and Airbus aircraft since at least 2015. The plane makers have charged airlines about $35,000 per aircraft to activate its features, according to Honeywell, which has received an unspecified share of the payments.
Boeing said it stopped charging airlines for safety-related features such as the Honeywell system in 2020.
About 20% of commercial jets overall are now flying with at least some of Honeywell’s system’s features turned on, Honeywell said.
Airbus, which still charges airlines to activate certain options such as Honeywell’s system, said its own overrun-avoidance system is activated by default at no additional cost.
Boeing said its own overrun warning system is available on the 737 MAX and is under development for its wide-body 777 and 787 models. Boeing offers other optional tools to aid pilots’ situational awareness.
American Airlines was the first airline to roll out Airbus’s runway-overrun protection system on its A320 fleet. The airline hasn’t activated Boeing’s overrun warning on its 737 MAX fleet.
“We want technology,” said Capt. Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for American’s pilot union, who flies that jet.
An American spokesman said the airline opted for a different technology for pilots’ heads-up displays that was available for all its 737s, not just newer MAX models, to achieve the same goal.
Airbus and Honeywell said they are working on other alerts, including one that could warn pilots of impending collisions on the ground.
The systems aren’t panaceas: In June 2022, before a Boeing 757 cargo plane operated by FedEx landed in Tulsa, Okla., pilots didn’t acknowledge one of the Honeywell system’s alerts, according to the NTSB. After they incorrectly landed on a short runway, the system prompted the crew to brake hard. There were no injuries. FedEx said all its aircraft are outfitted with the Honeywell system.
In 2017, an Air Canada jet nearly landed on a taxiway at San Francisco’s airport, where four planes with some 1,000 passengers were lined up. The NTSB found that Honeywell’s system, had it been installed and activated on the Air Canada jet, might have alerted its pilots well before they nearly crashed into the other planes.
The following year, the NTSB called on the FAA to mandate a system that would alert pilots they were about to land on the wrong runway or on a taxiway.
“It’s 2023, six years later,” the NTSB’s Homendy said. “They haven’t taken action.”
The FAA spokesman said the agency has rolled out ground-based safety systems at airports and is taking other steps. Air Canada said it is working to activate Honeywell alerts on compatible aircraft in its fleet by mid-2025.
1 post • Page 1 of 1
Although, I didn’t see auto-weight and balance, nor TOPMS.
Commercial Pilot, Vandelay Industries, Inc., Plant Nutrient Division.
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