Research Projects

Human Factors in Airport Operations In Reserve

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New research that identifies and describes the cognitive abilities used in airfield operations, as well as the limitations and potential complications of current practices. The research should identify methods for mitigating risks inherent to human performance and should identify and/or recommend best practices for developing or improving these abilities.

Background (Describe the current situation or problem in the industry, and how your idea would address it.)

Primarily inspired by the industry-wide prevalence of Vehicle Pedestrian Deviations (V/PDs) attributed to a "loss of situational awareness," it is evident that there is insufficient understanding of the cognitive processes and workload required to operate on the airfield. Further, current mitigation measures disproportionately rely on an individual's sense of sight (markings, signage, lighting) and hearing (radios) but make little use of other senses, and do not account for what is commonly called "information overload." That is, an individual only has a finite amount of cognitive bandwidth and we may not be making the best use of it.


A runway incursion is defined by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as "any occurrence at an aerodrome involving the incorrect presence of an aircraft, vehicle or person on the protected area of a surface designated for the landing and take-off of aircraft." Despite concerted industry-wide focus on reducing the prevalence, FAA statistics indicate a 47% increase since 2012 in V/PD-related runway incursions, rising from 200 to 293 in 2017. This dramatic increase indicates that, despite our best efforts, we still don't fully understand the problem. While we rely on both basic and advanced technology, as well as other methods to prevent V/PDs, ultimately the human behind the wheel is both the greatest asset and weakest link.


Boeing has stated that "human factors involves gathering information about human abilities, limitations, and other characteristics and applying it to tools, machines, systems, tasks, jobs, and environments to produce safe, comfortable, and effective human use. In aviation, human factors is dedicated to better understanding how humans can most safely and efficiently be integrated with the technology. That understanding is then translated into design, training, policies, or procedures to help humans perform better."


Both airlines and aircraft manufacturers have systematized specific procedures (such as configuring the aircraft for landing) into easily taught, consistently repeatable "flows." This method takes a complex action and makes use of visual cues, hand gestures, call-and-response, and memory association to: 1) augment routine tasks to minimize the potential for human error and 2) by relying on multiple cognitive pathways, it maximizes the opportunity that an anomaly can be observed and acknowledged rather than overlooked. A similar strategy is used in rail systems worldwide. Conductors and train operators make use of the "point-and-call" method to associate their tasks with hand gestures and vocalizations to heighten awareness, thereby enhancing safety. To our knowledge, no equivalent method for training and/or operating exists for airport operators.


Flows and point-and-call are basic examples of tools that can be implemented in airfield operations. They also represent foundational practices that can be taught universally at airports to enhance safety across the system. For example, an airport operator may be required to point at an active runway and verbalize "Active runway XYZ" whenever operating in the vicinity of the runway. Similar opportunities exist in environments with adverse weather conditions (low-visibility, winter operations). This research opportunity also extends beyond the runway environment, encompassing both the movement and non-movement areas, to heighten vehicular airport operations throughout the airfield. These practices could be taught as part of a baseline airport operations curriculum nationwide.

Airports stand to benefit from first understanding the demands and limitations of the human element operating in the airfield environment.

Approach (Describe in general terms the steps you think are needed to achieve the objective.)

The research should balance academic and practical applications, focusing on the following key areas:

Baseline research identifying cognitive characteristics of operating in the airfield at small
-, medium
-, and large
hub airports. What kind of work and skills does the typical airport worker's brain have to do and focus on?

Mapping existing best practices and mitigation strategies (markings, lighting, signage, procedures)

Identifying gaps and/or overreliance on existing practices and mitigation strategies. Do we, for example, expect a
person to "see" too
many warnings at once or are the instances where an operator is given conflicting messages?

Identifying gaps and shortcomings in unique environments (low
-visibility conditions, winter operations, etc.)

Develop and recommend new practices and strategies
to make use of underutilized cognitive abilities and/or
mitigate those that are overworked

Cost Estimate and Backup (Provide a cost estimate and support for how you arrived at the estimate.)

This would effectively be new research requiring observation and measurement in a practical environment. In order
for this research to be widely applicable, the sample demographic needs to include a wide cross-
section of airports
representative of the industry in various environments, and with operators with a broad range of experience and
assignments. Additionally, gap analysis and new strategy recommendations will need to be trialed and evaluated
before being included in the report. Therefore, this project is expected to take approximately 12 – 18 months.
Recommended funding for this project is $400,000.

Related Research - List related ACRP and other industry research; describe gaps (see link to Research Roadmaps above), and describe how your idea would address these gaps. This is a critical element of a synthesis topic submission.
  1. ACRP 101: Best Practices Manual for Working In or Near Airport Movement Areas
  2. ACRP 123: A Guidebook for Winter Operations
  3. Project 06-04 Webdoc 28: Identifying and Evaluating Airport Workforce Requirements
Idea No. 43