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New Runway Condition Reporting Methodology Improves Airport Safety

New Runway Condition Reporting Methodology Improves Airport Safety

The FAA's new method of assessing wet airport surface conditions, known as TALPA, was tested last winter by several powerful storms, offering several useful lessons for operators.

May 14, 2018

Each winter brings the challenge of operating on runways and taxiways contaminated with snow, slush and ice, with increased potential for runway excursions involving business and commercial aircraft. In addition to risking lives, these incidents frequently result in damage to airplanes and airport infrastructure.

Following years of collaboration between government officials and industry stake-holders, the FAA implemented in October 2016 the Takeoff and Landing Performance Assessment initiative (TALPA). This new method of assessing wet airport surface conditions utilizes a runway condition assessment matrix (RCAM) that airport operators use to evaluate and report conditions using runway condition codes (RwyCC) between zero and six for each third of the runway. Higher numbers indicate more favorable conditions, and this information is then disseminated to pilots through NOTAMs and recordings on the Automatic Terminal Information Service.

TALPA received an extensive workout last winter, shortly after its introduction, as a series of powerful storms swept across the United States.

“We average around 35 events annually that involve some kind of surface deicing, brooming or plowing, and last year we saw more than 70 events,” said Ryan Sheehan, operations and maintenance director for Spokane (WA) Airports and chair of the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE) Winter Operations Working Group. “Implementation was a bit rocky at first due to the expedited timeframe, but as famil-iarity has grown, we’ve seen relatively little difficulty with using the RCAM tool.”

Sheehan’s operation includes Spokane International Airport (GEG), which is utilized primarily by airlines, as well as Felts Field (SFF), which serves general aviation. Overseeing both towered and part-time contract tower airports provides Sheehan with a perspective on TALPA implementation, as requirements differ between FAR Part 139 air carrier airports and smaller fields.

“As a Part 139 commercial airport, we’re required to continually update conditions as they change [at GEG], including any time we perform field maintenance, and our airport operations personnel can quickly send that information through to the NOTAM system,” Sheehan explained. “Staffing levels directly affect how often field conditions are updated for Felts, because there can be some delay between when the operations crew is clearing the field and when they’re able to call [Spokane] International to have their information updated.”

While TALPA standardizes the assessment and reporting methodology for airport oper-ators, the human factor aspect still leaves some variations.

“There will always be some difference there,” Sheehan noted. “I may see 30-percent coverage where someone else sees 50 percent. Overall, though, the RCAM has brought a more logical and consistent reporting meth-odology than we’ve had in the past.”

Snow on the runway

Education Underway and Challenges Remain

However, that doesn’t mean all challenges have been met. One key driver behind the TALPA initiative involved the ability for flight crews to correlate RCAM readings against contaminated runway landing performance data provided by aircraft manufacturers. That process has lagged, with many of business aircraft not yet supported.

“TALPA was tested by the major airlines, so they had years to develop landing perfor-mance data and establish internal processes to help their pilots apply it,” noted Rich Boll, chairman of the Airspace, ATC and Flight Technologies Working Group of the NBAA Access Committee. “I don’t have that same data yet for the airplane I fly."

Business aircraft operators may still utilize RwyCCs, however, thanks to the Landing Distance Factors Table provided by the FAA. The table applies published perfor-mance data against RwyCC and reported braking levels to provide the anticipated effect on aircraft stopping performance.

“This resource is available for Part 23 and Part 25 aircraft, and can be used across all general aviation operations," said Tom Lahovski, an FAA Flight Standards safety inspector and a member of the FAA TALPA Implementation team. “As you’d expect, the table is somewhat conservative, as it must provide wide-ranging and simpli-fied guidance, but it provides reasonable data that can also be matched against existing manufacturer-provided performance data.

“Above all, TALPA is a decision-supporting tool, not a decision-making tool,” Lahovski continued. “Crews landing at a non-towered field with only codes they received prior to departure should request updated RwyCCs before landing, preferably at top of descent. If the updated runway conditions have worsened, crews should consider holding until the airport operator can improve the runway conditions, or diverting if the airport operator is unable to improve the conditions, and preflight information was already near the edge of their threshold.”

Another way for flight crews to gain familiarity with TALPA and improve the quality and accuracy of RCAM data, is to report actual braking action they experienced on landing.

“We’ve seen pilots attempting to give controllers RwyCCs, which they shouldn’t do,” said Lahovski. “Runway Condition Codes are determined by a thorough runway condition assessment, which only the airport operator can perform.

“However,” he continued, “we need pilots to provide one of the six pilot-reported braking actions – Good, Good to Medium, Medium, Medium to Poor, Poor and Nil. Any and all braking action reports after landing help the airport operator deter-mine if a new assessment and updated RwyCCs are needed and if action should be taken to improve conditions.”

Sheehan would also like to see pilots request more frequent updates of field conditions before arrival.

“Crews need to anticipate what codes they’ll see,” he said. “Conditions at their destination airport may be reported as “2” prior to departure, but if crews, plows and deicing trucks are at work, those conditions may very well improve by the time they arrive.”

Spreading The Word

Both the FAA and industry are committed to spreading the word about TALPA. The NBAA Access Committee has developed educational materials, consisting of video presentations and a quick-reference card, offering pilots invaluable tools to gain insight into the new initiative. FAA offi-cials frequently speak at aviation events like NBAA’s Business Aviation Convention & Exhibition and meetings of the Friends and Partners in Aviation Weather group to educate audiences about TALPA and RCAM and solicit valuable feedback on how both are utilized in the field.

“Overall, the industry response to TALPA has been very positive; I would even say enthusiastic,” Lahovski said. “We had more than 200 attendees from across govern-ment, various aviation groups and industry stakeholders come together to exchange information and provide valuable feedback at the TALPA Industry Day held last July.”

“We’ve received extremely positive and supportive feedback from airport operators, indicating TALPA has helped them to stan-dardize runway surface assessments and reporting,” added FAA Airport Certification Safety and Compliance Specialist Phillip Davenport. “Our industry partners serve as barometers to assess how well the TALPA initiative and utilization of the RCAM tool is working for our airport operators across the National Airspace System.”

While some growing pains remain, the TALPA initiative and the RCAM tool have already proven to be effective for airport oper-ators and pilots alike. In fact, Davenport said one airport director speaking at the recent International Aviation Snow Symposium - an annual event presented by the Northeast Chapter of AAAE - said they’d adopted a simple motto at their facility: “In RCAM we trust.”

TALPA RESOURCES FOR BUSINESS AIRCRAFT PILOTS

The following resources are available to help flight crews better understand operations from contaminated runways, TALPA and proper use of the RCAM:

  • NBAA TALPA Educational Materials (www.nbaa.org/winterops) – Five video modules to help pilots gain invaluable insight into all aspects of TALPA, as well as the quick-refer-ence card for download in PDF format.
  • Order 8900.1, Volume 4, Chapter 3, Section 1, Paragraph 4-503, Table 4-11, Landing Distance Factors – Provides a method for determining landing distance required for turbine aircraft operators that do not have manufacturer-provided, airplane-specific TALPA data.
  • SAFO 16009 Runway Assessment and Condition Reporting – Highlights the TALPA initiative processes.
  • AC 91-79A, Mitigating the Risks of a Runway Overrun Upon Landing – This publication offers methods for pilots and airplane operators to identify, understand and mitigate risks associated with runway overruns during landing, as well as a matrix to interpret runway condition codes and to define observed assessment criteria.
  • Reportable Contaminants in Field Condition (FICON) NOTAMs – Identifies reportable contaminants, as well as the reportable depths.

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This article originally appeared in the May/June 2018 issue of Business Aviation Insider. Download the magazine app for iOS and Android tablets and smartphones.