Logo: University of Southern California

A Closer Look at Runway Incursions

Top ISE Student Wins Highly Competitive Undergraduate Research Grant to Study Runway Safety and Human Factors in Air Traffic Control

May 06, 2008 — When Catherine Ricafort boards an airplane, she always takes a window seat.  Not to enjoy an aerial view of the city, but to check out the runway traffic on the ground. 

But Ricafort isn’t your typical traveler.  For the last two years, she has been studying runway incursions and the role human error plays in those accidents.  The more she learns about runway accidents, the more she thinks there are ways to improve things.  
Catherine Ricafort looks out at the main engine of a McDonnell Douglas DC-8 airplane, housed across the street from USC at the California Science Center.

She will have a chance to test her ideas this fall, using a newly garnered Undergraduate Research Associates Program (URAP) grant. The $8,760 prize will enable Ricafort to organize an interdisciplinary team of undergraduate students to investigate aviation safety at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).  

“I’m sure I’ll understand the issues much better when I talk to the tower controllers and airfield employees about their jobs and the technology they rely on to coordinate air traffic,” Ricafort said.  “I want to find out what they think the biggest problems are in air traffic control because that could help us identify the human factors contributing to runway incursions.”

Ricafort, a junior majoring in industrial and systems engineering, is a USC presidential scholar and Viterbi merit research scholar who has done quite a bit of traveling for her minor in musical theater.  She sings with USC’s premier A Capella group, the SoCal VoCals, which just performed in New York City and won an international championship.  Ricafort is also a multi-talented singer-dancer-actress who performs on stage and in musicals.  In her most recent performance at the Bing Theater on campus, she starred as “Louise” in the musical “Carousel.”

Ricafort has been studying incursion prevention for some time under the supervision of faculty adviser Najmedin Meshkati, a leading expert on the topic.  Meshkati has joint appointments in the Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering and the Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and teaches in USC’s Aviation Safety Program.  His field research focuses on the safety, human factors and risk management of complex, large-scale technological systems, such transportation systems — aviation and railway systems — and petrochemical and nuclear power plants.

Ricafort’s URAP grant will support three teammates who will bring their expertise in electrical engineering, business, computer science, and economics to the study.  As the students begin a case study of LAX runway design and air traffic control, the group will interview airfield employees and traffic controllers, relying heavily on Meshkati’s many flight industry contacts to open doors and provide additional informants.  
Catherine Ricafort

“We want to take full advantage of our proximity to LAX and Dr. Meshkati’s contacts to gather information and develop an action plan for runway safety, advise management on potential runway incursion issues and recommend strategies,” Ricafort said.  “The study is timely, in light of so many airport near misses recently, and really appropriate at LAX because that airport is considered one of the worst offenders in runway close calls.”

Ricafort said there were eight runway incursions at LAX in fiscal year 2007 alone.  “That’s eight chances for a disastrous collision on our airport’s runway,” she said.

Runway incursions have repeatedly topped the National Transportation Safety Board’s list of “most wanted” safety improvements for the past decade.  However, according to a recent GAO report on runway safety in the U.S., “…the rate of runway incursions has not decreased over the last five years…and the FAA has not prepared a national runway safety plan since 2002.” 

“Catherine hopes to propose solutions to prevent air traffic controller fatigue,” said Meshkati.  “She intends to build on the International Civil Aviation Organization’s ‘concept of a sterile flight deck while taxiing,’ and establish cockpit environment requirements during the most crucial times of concentration.”

In a letter to the editor, entitled “Stop the Bulldozers,” published in the L.A. Times (Dec. 17, 2007), Ricafort and Meshkati spelled out some of their concerns about air traffic controller fatigue and other issues affecting runway safety at LAX.  The article sparked feedback from industry workers and the general public all over the United States.
Najmedin Meshkati

Ricafort hopes that she will be able to devise steps for adopting a standard approach for reporting runway incursions, improving upon the current incursion severity rating system, and effectively collecting incident data to create a repository of prevention information.

“I hope that in my final report, I will be able to propose solutions that will improve not only runway safety at LAX, but also the safety of the national aviation environment,” she said. 

Other students who will be joining Ricafort’s team this fall are Agrim Agarwal, a freshman majoring in electrical engineering; David Hodge, a freshman majoring in business and computer science; and Mohammad Alaiban, a freshman majoring in economics.