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U.S. airports safer after software upgrades aimed at preventing taxiway landings

Accidental taxiway landings by aircraft at busy airports are rare, but they nevertheless present a serious threat to passenger safety. At the current time, these so called “wrong-surface landings” are among the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) top five five safety hazards in the national airspace system.

With planes using taxiways prior to takeoff, the consequences of such an erroneous landing are potentially catastrophic. And a number of near-misses have indeed occurred in the U.S. over the years.

Intent on reducing the risk and increasing the safety of passengers and crew, the FAA has confirmed that software — called ASDE-X Taxiway Arrival Prediction (ATAP) — has now been installed at 43 major airports across the U.S as part of upgrade work, Axios reported on Thursday.

ATAP works by using radar and other sensors to calculate if an incoming aircraft seems to be heading for the taxiway rather than the runway. If the ATAP system considers the approach unsafe, it alerts air traffic controllers, who can then confirm the situation and communicate with the pilots.

“ATAP provides an extra layer of safety for pilots and passengers at airports with multiple parallel runways and taxiways,” said Capt. Jeffrey Sedin, airport ground environment chairman with the Air Line Pilots Association.

The FAA said that ATAP has helped to prevent more than 50 wrong-surface taxiway landings since the system was first introduced at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in 2018. The latest data reveals that there have been eight such alerts already in 2023.

In a high-profile incident several years ago, an Air Canada plane lined up for a taxiway landing at night at San Francisco International Airport.

The aircraft, a 146-seat Airbus A320, had clearance to land on Runway 28R, but in error, the pilot lined up for the taxiway that runs parallel to it. There were four aircraft on the taxiway as the Air Canada jet approached. As it came in to land, it passed over two of the planes at an altitude of just 100 feet, and an air traffic controller ordered the pilot to abort the landing and fly around.

San Francisco’s airport now has ATAP installed to reduce the chances of this kind of dangerous incident occurring.

It’s worth noting that flying remains one of the safest modes of transportation, with injuries and fatalities extremely rare when measured against the number of journeys that take place. Besides having an infrastructure geared toward a high level of safety, the pilots are trained to handle the most challenging of conditions.

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Trevor Mogg
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