Runways Made Safer? Yeah but…

I caught this story on the web last week. According to the press release (eh, I mean) article, aircraft are falling apart during take-off and landing and the frontline of defence, airport safety officers, are prone to error. Enter the saviour – FOD radar. Okay, that's a cruel, exaggerated (mis)representation.

I will admit that Foreign Object Debris (FOD) is a very real problem for aviation and airports, in particular. Skybrary puts the yearly cost at $4 billion per year (including wildlife) and the list of FOD-induced crashes is often headlined by the 2000 Concorde disaster.

It's the mis-characterisation of runway inspections that gets to me as it seems that the article is trying to paint the following picture:

The first correction I want to make to the characterisation will actually make runway inspections sound worse. In Australia and under ICAO Annex 14, inspections are not required six-hourly but only once or twice a day. Well, at least once or twice a day. It's that "at least" which makes all the difference because at busy airports the expectation is that inspections are carried out more regularly based on the airport operator's assessment of the risk they are trying to mitigate.

Airport operators, in most jurisdictions now, are required to have a safety management system - a big component of which is risk management.  Below is another picture and this time, I've had a go at identifying the causes of FOD. Carrying out this type of exercise gives the airport operator a better understanding of the risk posed by FOD and the numerous options for control available to them.

Now its time to throw in a few more controls and treatments. The light green boxes in the picture below are preventative measures designed to stop FOD from being on the runway during aircraft operations. I've never actually seen all of these in described within the single risk scenario but they all contribute in their own way with varying levels of success. Remember, no single risk treatment is 100% effective (except maybe abstinence!). So multiple, in-line defences or defences-in-depth are essential.

The more interesting risk treatments, since it was the characterisation of runway inspections that got my goat in the beginning, are shown in light blue. These "as required" runway inspections are extremely important, maybe even more important than the standard regular inspections because they are specifically triggered when the risk is greater. Let's start with the bottom one and work our way up:

Rubbish + Wind = Bad - This inspection is actually already mandated in Australia. CASR 139.225 (3) (a) requires an aerodrome serviceability inspection be carried out after a gale. Following such events, it is reasonable to expect that stuff has been moved around and that some of that stuff might be on the runway. To combat this hazard, the scenario includes a rubbish control program (preventative) and an "as required" inspection (mitigative).

Engines that Blow, Suck - On narrow runways where outboard engines overhang the shoulder or even the strip, FOD from these areas may be blown on to the runway for subsequent aircraft to encounter. Again, the above scenario includes a preventative measure, erosion resistant surfaces, and another "as required" inspections as a mitigative measure.

Risk Control Gone Bad - Generally works are designed to make things better but as any good risk manager knows, sometimes controls become hazards themselves. In this case, FOD resulting from runway works is a very real problem. Tools are one of the big offenders, so the scenario includes a tool tracking procedure and the now familiar "as required" inspection to back it up.

Dodgy Bros. Airline - In some parts of the world, aircraft might have a tendency to fall apart or drop things. I'm going to put my hand up here and say that I've contributed to this one. Once upon a time, I left my fuel tank dipstick ( a cut-off broom handle) on my wing following my pre-flight inspection. Luckily it didn't do any harm as it fell off in the aircraft's assigned parking position but it highlights the point that some operations may have a higher likelihood of dropping presents on your movement area (in my case, low hour private pilots!). Other than banning such operations, I'm not sure what preventative measures there are but inspections after operations by known "dodgy" aircraft couldn't hurt.

Susceptible Aircraft - Critical aircraft operating at the edges of safety (maybe something like the Concorde) demand more attention. I don't think it unreasonable for runway inspections to be carried out before these aircraft operate.

I'll admit that inspections aren't perfect. A 2,000 metre long, 30m wide runway is 60,000 square metres - a lot of area to cover and a 3km x 45m is even bigger! Throw into the mix time pressures and poor weather and yes, effectiveness goes down. But using risk management to understand the complete (or at least wider) FOD picture helps to comprehend the risk and the controls already in place to deal or help deal with the problem. It also helps to make a sound purchasing decision when considering new equipment.

Don't get me wrong, FOD radar and detection equipment has a place and overtime, I'm sure its use will filter down to little ol' Australia. I, for one, will welcome its introduction as long as its considered within the total risk picture including an analysis of what new hazards are introduced by the new equipment.