Standardizing the use of external lights on jetliners would help prevent runway collisions — an increasing risk with global air traffic expanding at record rates, an international pilots' group said Wednesday.
Passenger jets routinely use lights while taxiing on the tarmac at airports, but there has been no attempt to standardize the use of external lighting, the London-based International Federation of Airline Pilots' Associations said.
Experts are warning that near-misses on the ground at overcrowded airports are becoming one of the most serious safety headaches in civil aviation.
The danger rises when airports try to alleviate the bottleneck by adding runways. That leads to more taxiways intersecting the runways, raising the risk of accidental incursions in which an aircraft or vehicle ventures onto a runway being used for takeoffs and landings.
In the United States, there were 370 runway incursions last year. An incursion is defined as an incident in which any aircraft or vehicle encroaches on space reserved for takeoffs and landings.
In an attempt to address the problem, regulators in the U.S. and Europe are looking at speeding up certification for new electronic displays that provide commercial pilots with more detailed runway information than is available by simply looking out the cockpit window.
But standardizing the use of aircraft lighting could be an effective and immediate tool to alleviating the risk of incursions, pilots said.
In conjunction with the Federal Aviation Administration and Eurocontrol, the group has drawn up a set of "common sense" guidelines on external lighting that all pilots should use during ground movements, said Gideon Ewers, spokesman for the pilots' group.
These range from turning on rotating beacons before starting engines in order to warn ground staff to switching on all exterior lights — including high-powered strobes — whenever taxiing across a runway, Ewers said.
"It's one more method in breaking a link in the chain that might lead to an accident."
Ultimately, the International Civil Aviation Organization, a U.N. agency most countries belong to, is responsible for standardizing procedures regarding the use of lighting.
The pilots' statement emphasized that using lights doesn't mean aircraft shouldn't communicate with the tower and use other technical devices as well.
It also warned that the use of strobes and high-power runway lights should be minimized in certain weather conditions — such as snow — to prevent them from blinding other crews.