A winter of close calls on American flights puts a renewed focus on aviation safety

Why are there so many close calls lately?

US airlines, aviation experts and regulators are reviewing policies, practices and procedures after several troubling incidents in recent months raised the specter of a major tragedy.

Commercial aviation is known for being safe and safety-conscious, and the “Swiss cheese” approach to safety—where multiple layers and redundancies ensure there is no single point of failure in any safety practice—has prevented any from accidents in accidents.

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Still, each incident was too close for comfort in an industry that prioritizes safety above all else. That’s why on Wednesday, the Federal Aviation Administration convened aviation leaders near Washington, D.C., for a safety summit. The meeting was meant to review the issues and effectively give a wake-up call.

“This is not an academic exercise,” said Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolan. “Six threats – we took those six threats and treated them as if they happened.”

The panelists generally agreed that the influx of new workers following the surge in travel demand in recent years of the coronavirus pandemic era has added to the challenges.

“It’s not just the new pilots. All are new: [Air traffic] controllers, flight attendants, ground staff,” said Jason Ambrosi, president of the Airline Pilots Association of the major pilots’ union. “There is so much going on in this rapid recovery from COVID-19.”

In one of the most alarming incidents, a FedEx 767 was cleared to land at the same time a Southwest 737 was preparing to take off from the same runway. The FedEx pilots reconfirmed their clearance, but instead began a “go-around” as the Southwest flight took off. The two planes may have come within 100 feet of each other, National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy said.

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In another incident, an American Airlines 777 crossed the wrong runway at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) in front of a Delta 737 that had been cleared for takeoff and was speeding down the runway. Air traffic controllers spotted the error using a surface surveillance system used at the airport and called for the Delta flight to be aborted. The two planes were about 1,400 feet apart, according to a preliminary NTSB report.

Another incident occurred when a United plane unexpectedly dived shortly after takeoff from Honolulu; another occurred when a different United plane in Honolulu crossed a runway while a small plane was landing.

These close calls seem to have several different causes, which means there is no problem that can be fixed quickly. Still, there are a few commonalities that attendees at the Safety Summit noted.

Homendy urged the FAA to implement various safety recommendations the NTSB has made over the years. She noted seven outstanding recommendations regarding track entry that have yet to be implemented. This includes one that was first issued 23 years ago.

“Sometimes we get a response that it costs too much,” Hommendi said. “What is too expensive? Think of your loved ones; are they worth a price?”

Nolen noted the effect the recent travel boom is having on the industry.

“How much of what we’re seeing can be attributed to the sudden resurgence of demand after the pandemic?” Nolan asked at the summit.

The union representing air traffic controllers, on the other hand, pointed directly to the staff shortage.

“We have to recognize that we have a lag in staffing and funding across the system,” said Rich Santa, head of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “We have 1,200 fewer certified professional controllers than 10 years ago.”

Santa cited inadequate staffing and funding patterns and said better staffing would improve safety.

Major airlines, for their part, did not point to specific problems.

“We’re trying to figure out what’s going on,” said Nick Calio, president of the airlines trade group Airlines for America. Kallio said carriers are reviewing incidents as well as their own operations to identify trends.

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Senator Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, chairs the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation (which includes aviation). After the summit, Cantwell urged the FAA to implement earlier NTSB recommendations, some of which have yet to be addressed.

“I think what we see here and feel in these many stories is that we need to have the highest safety standards and we need to have an investment in modern equipment that will give us those safety standards,” Cantwell said on time of hearing on the aviation workforce. “So that’s what we’re going to push for here.”

Senator Tammy Duckworth, Democrat of Illinois, is a former military helicopter pilot who chairs the Senate subcommittee on aviation. In an interview with Reuters, she called for more air traffic controllers to be hired and trained. Duckworth said the FAA sets air traffic control staffing levels based on budgetary factors “versus the actual need in terms of traffic requirements.”

Whether anything will change as a result of the meeting remains to be seen. However, the leaders of the summit noted that improving safety is critical.

“There were too many close calls,” Hommendi said. “These recent incidents should serve as a wake-up call.”

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