ATSAP: Both Controllers and Pilots See Eye to Eye
Thursday, February 21, 2013

When pilots didn’t follow taxi instructions at Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI), the controllers thought the pilots were taking a shortcut to the gate. They were wrong. Because the controllers thought the pilots were just trying to get to the gates quicker, they didn’t file Air Traffic Safety Action Program (ATSAP) reports.

But the pilots filed ASAP reports. Through the Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP), the voluntary safety reporting program that's available at many airlines, pilots reported issues with the taxiway markings and signage.

Pilots were making unauthorized turns because they were having trouble correctly navigating the surface of the airport.

When the ASAP reports reached the FAA though the Confidential Information Sharing Program (CISP), safety officials brought them to the attention of Baltimore Tower.

The controllers learned that the pilots weren’t willfully disregarding their instructions, and saw another potential value of ATSAP. If they had filed ATSAP reports on the incorrect taxi routes, the FAA would have had information on the issue from both pilots and controllers.

“Because of this information sharing program, the controllers got the pilots’ perspective and understand it was not just an attitude issue,” said Kevin Gallagher, an air traffic controller working on the Office of Safety’s Safety Promotion and Crew Resource Management Team. “It also points out the need for air traffic controllers to submit ATSAP reports to see both sides of the ball and help illuminate risk in the NAS.”

BWI NATCA Facility Representative John Dunkerly agreed.

“This brought a better awareness to the controller workforce of the predicament the pilots were in here at BWI,” he said.

And it reinforced the impact ATSAP reports can have, demonstrating that the information in the reports can improve safety, no matter the circumstances controllers might think are causing the issue.

Dunkerly thinks the information sharing can go even further. He talked to the Maryland Aviation Administration, which operates BWI, and found out that they would be thrilled to have the information from both ASAP and ATSAP reports.

“They said this kind of information would help them be proactive rather than reactive to these issues, and they would be able to respond to the issues faster,” he said.

Though the signage has been changed, the controllers are continuing to use ATSAP to make the airport easier to navigate for pilots.

They’ve filed ATSAP reports suggesting that Taxiway A and Taxiway P be renamed. The taxiways run parallel toward a single airline’s ramp area, and pilots sometimes turn mistakenly on one after controllers instruct them to use the other.

Pilots’ ASAP reports have also brought another surface-movement issue to the attention of BWI controllers. After a change to air traffic control procedures required specific crossing instructions for each runway, Baltimore Tower decided to turn off the yellow flashing lights at the edge of Runway 4/22.

Controllers use that runway as a taxiway “99 percent of the time,” Dunkerly said.

Before the rule change, a specific clearance to cross Runway 4 was not required when taxiing to Runway 28 for departure, Dunkerly explained. After the rule change, the tower decided to turn off the guard lights, since detailed taxi instructions were now required and the runway was closed.

“We didn’t want to impact the flow of outbound traffic by having pilots stopping at the guard lights and asking if they were cleared to cross,” Dunkerly said.

But with the yellow lights off, inbound pilots confused the taxi route and would “accidently stray off of taxiway P and onto closed Runway 4,” Dunkerly said.

That’s a pilot deviation, because the pilot technically went onto a runway without proper clearance.

So the pilots filed ASAP reports. And information from the reports was brought to BWI.

After some consideration, BWI controllers and management decided to turn the lights back on for a trial run. While the lights were on, pilots taxied without issues, and now the tower leaves the lights on all the time.

It’s not just pilots who are filing safety reports at Baltimore. Controllers there have used ATSAP to bring attention to a problem with the windows in the tower cab. When temperatures change, the windows would fog up due to condensation between the panes of glass. After the reports were filed, the airport authority agreed to replace the windows.

And ATSAP reports from Baltimore raised concerns about lack of radar training for tower controllers who haven’t worked in a TRACON. A collaborative FAA-NATCA workgroup is working on a resolution to that issue.