An Alaska Airlines flight from Chicago with 153 people on board mistakenly landed on a taxiway instead of a runway at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in 2015, avoiding disaster only because no planes were preparing for takeoff at the time.
The incident prompted the Federal Aviation Administration to turn to Emily Banuelos for a nationwide fix to this rare but serious problem. Together with a team of experts, Banuelos, a runway safety manager, developed an enhanced system that alerts air traffic controllers of trouble, so they can provide sufficient warning to pilots, who then can avert potential catastrophe. The system is being installed at 35 of the nation’s busiest airports.
“The safety implications of this work are profound and will greatly reduce the chances of an accident resulting from a wrong-surface landing,” said David Suomi, the FAA’s Northwest Mountain regional administrator.
Landings at major airports are monitored by Airport Surface Detection Equipment software that alerts air traffic controllers to potential conflicts on the runway. But the system did not take into account taxiways, which often run parallel to runways or are close by, creating the potential for confusion.
There have been a number of taxiway incidents during the past decade involving commercial airlines. In 2017, for example, an Air Canada crew was seconds from landing their Airbus A320 jet on a taxiway in San Francisco where other passenger planes were waiting to take off. Federal safety officials said the Air Canada pilots aborted the landing when they were within 10 to 20 feet above a plane on the ground.
There also have been close calls at airports in Atlanta, Philadelphia and Boston.
Banuelos and her team, with expertise in runway safety, air traffic control, airport operations, flight standards, accident investigations and aviation technology, spent months studying the possible causes for the taxiway landings. They examined everything from runway markings to navigational aids and flight crew weariness and considered a variety of fixes such as red lights at the end of taxiways, increased pilot training and a change in the software used aboard commercial aircraft.
“Everything was thrown on the table,” Banuelos said. “There were a lot of challenges.”
By identifying and sharing technical and practical information, the team found and implemented what Suomi called “a brilliant solution” that involved a modification to the existing Airport Surface Detection Equipment software. Now the software alerts air traffic controllers if an airplane is in line with a taxiway when a plane is 300 to 600 feet above the ground, rather than 50 to 60 feet up, allowing them to warn pilots sooner that they are lined up for a wrong-surface landing.
One reason the modification is effective is that it’s an airport-based fix rather than an adjustment to software on individual airplanes.
In May 2018, Seattle became the first airport to install the software fix, and since then five more airports have been added. Since implementation, there have been 25 alerts at the six locations, and five of those have been considered a “save.” Under Banuelos’ guidance, the FAA is rolling out the new warning system at all of the nation’s busiest commercial airports.
Mark Denicuolo, FAA director of policy and performance, said the solution championed by Banuelos “has really eliminated the possibility of catastrophe” due to taxiway landings.
Banuelos worked closely with the air traffic controllers, the airports and the engineers programming the new system to meet the necessary requirements, and she coordinated the flight testing to validate its reliability.
“She’s got a quiet way of convincing people of the right thing to do. She’s a star,” Denicuolo said.
Banuelos was uniquely suited to work collaboratively with the critical aviation stakeholders. She started her career as a flight attendant and then became a licensed pilot. Later she transitioned to air traffic control before finally making her way into runway safety. She’s been at the FAA for about 10 years.
“She is a dedicated champion of runway safety,“ Suomi said.
Banuelos said she got into the aviation industry because she “wanted an adventure,” but has stayed “because I thought it was a place where I could have a positive effect.”
“This project has the potential to affect much more than I would have envisioned,” Banuelos said. “I truly believe it will reduce risk to the flying public. We have already seen events at the facilities where taxiway alerts have increased safety margins for aircraft.”