SNA Blames Runway Incursions on “Small Planes”

It never ceases to amaze me how often folks within the aviation industry use “small planes” as a catch-all scapegoat and get by without being challenged.

Whether it’s FAA funding, airline delays, noise issues, pollution, ATC staffing levels, or the long lines at the McDonald’s in the terminal, the finger always gets pointed at the same place: it’s those small airplanes. Yes, guilty as charged. We’re also responsible the Southern California fires, the Landis doping scandal, and the overabundance of Pottery Barn catalogs in your mailbox.

No one will call them on it, even when the very statistics they espouse to support their thesis clearly suggest the problem lies elsewhere. The latest example comes from my home base, John Wayne-Orange County Airport (KSNA), where the Orange County Register reported this:

Airport spokeswoman Jenny Wedge chalked the problem up to JWA’s large number of private small-plane flights, which account for roughly 70 percent of operations.

“We would love to help with whatever we can do, but we’re doing everything (the FAA is) suggesting, and still continue to have problems,” Wedge said. Private pilots “could help by building their own awareness” of the airport and its safety guidelines, she added.

It’s because I’m “so aware” of the airport and its safety guidelines that I can say it’s ridiculous to blame runway incursions primarily on general aviation. The numbers don’t back you up, ma’am.

First of all, there are varying levels of runway incursions. There are incursions which have no bearing on safety, and there are those which could lead to an accident. If your spinner crosses 1″ over the hold line, that’s an incursion. But is it a serious safety issue? Certainly not on the level of the type we’ve been seeing at LAX. The “serious runway incursion” is defined as one which would likely have lead to an accident without intervention. Example: a pilot crosses a hold short line and stops 1 foot over the line. There are no other airplanes around. It’s not a serious incursion. Second example: an airliner crosses an active runway without clearance just as another airliner is about to touch down. A go-around is performed to avoid the collision. That would be a category A or B (serious) runway incursion.

JWA’s safety record compares well with its local counterparts since 1998, the longest period for which data were immediately available. In that time frame, JWA had one serious incursion, Long Beach Airport had four and LAX had 22, including an August incident in which two planes reportedly missed by just 37 feet.

Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. Let’s examine that a little closer. According to FAA statistics, LAX has 1700 operations (takeoffs and landings) per day, basically all of them by commercial airline pilots. John Wayne sees 950 operations per day, and 70% of those are by general aviation pilots. That’s a ratio of about 1.7:1. Yet the ratio of serious runway incursions over the past nine years is 9:1. That means LAX, which sees ZERO general aviation, is about six times as likely to have a serious runway incursion.

Or, to put it another way, John Wayne Airport, where more than 2/3rds of the aircraft are the “small planes” ostensibly piloted by rich white yahoos with reckless disregard for the safety of law abiding citizens who just want to get to grandma’s house in one piece, is nearly six times safer than LAX.

Here’s another stat: on a per acre basis, SNA is busier than LAX. A lot busier — I’ve compared the acreage in a previous article. That means we move more airplanes with a smaller physical airport. Clearances are tighter. Yet we do it safely day after day. I don’t know what that says to you, but to me it indicates that the GA pilots flying out of SNA are doing better than the airline pilots they’re so unfavorably compared with.

I should add that John Wayne Airport is currently under major construction. They’re building hangars on the southeast side, digging up the northwest corner, and constructing a new terminal which causes one of the two runways to be used as a taxiway at night. They’re parking airliners in weird places, taxiways are closed, and we still have a safety record that LAX could only dream of.

Unlike large airports such as LAX, inspectors at JWA are focusing on recreational flights. Errors by small-plane pilots account for the majority of recent incursions at JWA, according to federal records obtained by The Register.

Considering 70% of SNA’s operations are general aviation, that is normal and should be expected. LAX has no general aviation, so focusing on GA there would be an exercise in futility. The whole statement makes no sense… unless you’re trying to make GA look bad.

If you want to know where the real safety hangups are when it comes to runway incursions, look at the airline guys. They’re jet lagged, overworked, frequently underpaid, at war with their employers, and perpetually behind schedule. And if the airliner in question is a regional jet, the guy in the right seat could have as little a 300 hours of total flight time.

You won’t read about this in the newspaper, but only about half of nationwide runway incursions are even due to pilots at all. The numbers break down this way:

  • 54%: pilot deviation
  • 35%: pedestrian or vehicle deviation
  • 11%: operational deviations or errors

And speaking of runway incusions, I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve been on 1/4 mile final only to see a 757 cross my runway right in front of me. They may not call that a runway incursion, but it’s not safe. Also, those 757s are too long to hold between the runways without the tail hanging out past the hold bars. That puts their jet blast closer to landing traffic on 19L and fits a reasonable definition of runway incursion.

The bottom line is that the runway incursion problem is a local issue. The factors which lead to incursions at SNA are completely different from those that cause them at LAX. Runway layout, operation type, time of day, weather, controller staffing & experience, pilot fatigue, signage and lighting, these all have as much to do with surface safety as who’s in the cockpit. So don’t always trust what you read in the newspaper. Or from your airport spokesperson. Look carefully at the statistics. They might tell a very different story.

2 comments

  1. Great points, all. But, you’re preaching to the choir here. Sadly, sending the OC Register these facts will likely result in no action at all; or perhaps, if you’re really lucky, a spot in the ‘Letters to the editor.’
    The real question is how to correct this anti-GA attitude on the part of the media. The first step is to try and understand why they are so negative on GA. Frankly, I just can’t believe it is simply because they hate ‘rich white yahoos.’ But, I don’t have a better explanation. Someone had better figure it out though.

  2. I’ve always felt that the best solution to the anti-GA attitude is: education. The frustrating part is that many of these questionable quotes come from people who shouldn’t need to be educated. The FAA, airport management, etc.

    There used to be an exchange program between controllers and pilots. Operation Raincheck, I think it was called. Controllers would fly with pilots to see what it was like in the cockpit, and pilots would spend a day at the scope with a controller. It was a great way for each side to appreciate what the other was doing. We need a program like that for the media.

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