Amid close calls, UND aero leaders assure public about students’ training
“(UND students) have the building blocks, where they may not need to spend time on certain items that someone without an aviation background may take longer to complete,” instructor says
GRAND FORKS — In light of an increase in runway incursions across the nation, leaders at UND’s John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences want to reassure the public that its students are receiving instruction on how to avoid these potentially catastrophic mistakes.
The FAA defines a runway incursion 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 takeoff of aircraft.”
Since the beginning of 2023, there have been several high-profile runway incursions in the United States, including an incident on Jan. 13 at John F. Kennedy International Airport, where an American Airlines flight taxied onto a runway where a Delta Airlines flight had been cleared for takeoff. The incident, along with others, prompted FAA Administrator Bill Nolen to convene an emergency safety summit on March 14.
Robert Kraus, dean of the Odegard School, said an impasse exists between the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Bureau regarding the implementation of technology to avoid runway incursions, such as an automatic alerting system.
“The NTSB is not happy with the FAA, because the NTSB has been making recommendations for these technologies for the past 20 years, but the FAA has not done anything about implementing them,” he said.
Kraus said there isn’t a specific party to blame for the incursions.
“We look at it from several different perspectives,” he said. “One is, what is the pilot’s responsibility, versus the air traffic controller’s responsibility? So we say, what is the individual’s job? Are we putting requirements on them that are contributing to the problems?’ ”
According to Kraus, students enrolled in the Odegard School’s commercial aviation program receive instruction stressing the use of protocols standard to aviation.
“One of the things we teach our students is using proper radio calls,” he said. “It should be stressed at every flight school, every air traffic control program, that there are standard ways to say things when you’re talking back and forth. You also want to avoid unnecessary conversations during critical stages of flight, such as during takeoff and landing. The majority of accidents occur during these stages of flight.”
Kraus also said additional technology is on the horizon to make air traffic control a more electronic endeavor.
“We’re getting to the point where an air traffic controller can issue a clearance that is electronic,” he said. “For example, if the controller says ‘Climb and maintain 10,000 feet,’ that clearance would automatically be entered in the aircraft’s computer system. It removes some chance of error in communication, and also potentially allows one controller to handle more aircraft.”
Colt Iseminger, an instructor in the college’s air traffic control department, which instructs 100 students, said students are exposed to several scenarios in a simulated environment. He estimates “over 1,000 students” are working in the field.
“The simulations are a good training aid to show students different scenarios — a lot of them similar to the runway incursions of the past few months — without having to put the lives of passengers at stake,” he said.
Iseminger said although the FAA does not mandate that controllers attend a four-year institution — the FAA accepts three years of any work experience in lieu of a degree — students enrolled in UND’s air traffic control program have a leg up on others applying without an aviation background.
“Our students coming from UND have the building blocks, where they may not need to spend time on certain items that someone without an aviation background may take longer to complete,” he said.
Iseminger also opined that a resurgence in air travel to near pre-pandemic levels, and a large number of experienced pilots and controllers retiring, could be behind the increase in incursions.
“I think with the pandemic, people got used to slower levels of air traffic,” he said. “Quite a few of the older, experienced controllers retired during the pandemic, and we filled their positions with newer and younger people. They may not have the experience to pull from that older generations did. With the resurgence in demand, I think maybe corporate pressure to put more aircraft in the sky has exposed these new pilots and controllers to an environment they may not have experienced before.”
Upon hiring, all controllers attend training at the FAA academy in Oklahoma City, and are then assigned to airports across the country. New controllers are then supervised by experienced ones for a duration of time depending on their aptitude, and the level of traffic at their airport.
“Slower facilities require a lower amount of supervision, while at busier facilities, it could be up to a few years where they’re training with another employee before they’re allowed to be unsupervised,” Iseminger said.
In terms of enrollment, Kraus said there are 1,800 students enrolled in commercial aviation, with approximately 400 new freshmen admitted each academic year. Kraus said these numbers represent the school’s capacity.
Kraus said the aviation department can cope with a large number of students in more entry-level courses such as the private pilot’s course, due to the fact that its instructors are generally students who use their positions to accrue flight hours. However, he says upper-level courses pose greater challenges.
“The flight instructor and multi-engine courses have greater instructor requirements in terms of flight hours,” he said. “We have a harder time keeping the people teaching these courses, because by the time they begin teaching, they have almost completed their eligibility requirements to go to the airlines.”
Kraus also said capacity is dependent on “the number of aircraft we can fly in one day safely.”
“It all comes down to safety,” he said. “We don’t want too many pilots taking off and getting in line to come back. Now you’ve created a traffic jam, which impacts everyone else. We try to keep things — you take off on time, so you have the ability to land on time. When we’re busy, an aircraft is typically only on the ground for 30 minutes.”