A winter of close calls on US flights launches a renewed focus on safety in aviation

Why have there been so many close calls lately?

U.S. airlines, aviation experts and regulators are reexamining policies, practices and procedures after several alarming incidents in recent months have raised the specter of a major tragedy.

Commercial aviation is famously safe and safety-conscious, and the “Swiss cheese” safety approach — in which multiple layers and redundancies ensure there’s no single point of failure in any safety practice — prevented any of the incidents from turning into catastrophes.

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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 summit aimed to review issues and effectively issue a wake-up call.

“It’s not an academic exercise,” acting FAA administrator Billy Nolan said. “Six near misses — we’ve taken these six near misses and treated them as if they’ve happened.”

Overall, panel participants agreed that a rush of new workers following a surge in coronavirus pandemic-era travel demand in recent years has contributed to the challenges.

“It’s not just new pilots. It’s new everybody: [Air traffic] controllers, flight attendants, ground people,” said Jason Ambrosi, president of the major pilots’ union Air Line Pilots Association. “In this post-COVID-19 rapid recovery, there’s so much going on.”

In one of the more alarming incidents, a FedEx 767 was cleared to land at the same time that a Southwest 737 was preparing to take off from the same runway. The FedEx pilots reconfirmed their clearance but instead initiated a “go-around” as the Southwest flight departed. The two planes may have come within as little as 100 feet of each other, National Transportation Safety Board chair 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, which had been cleared for takeoff and was accelerating down the runway. Air traffic controllers spotted the error with the help of a surface monitoring system in use at the airport and called for the Delta flight to abort. The two planes were about 1,400 feet apart, according to a preliminary NTSB report.

Another incident occurred when a United jet unexpectedly dove shortly after taking off from Honolulu; another one happened when a different United jet in Honolulu crossed a runway while a small plane was landing.

These close calls appeared to have several different causes, meaning there is no one issue to quickly fix. Still, there are a few commonalities that attendees at the safety summit noted.

Homendy pressed the FAA on implementing various safety recommendations that the NTSB has made over the years. She noted seven outstanding recommendations on runway incursions that have yet to be implemented. This includes one that was first issued 23 years ago.

“Sometimes, we get the response that it costs too much,” Homendy said. “What is too expensive? Think about your loved ones; do they deserve a price tag?”

Nolen noted the effect that the recent travel boom has had on the industry.

“How much of what we are seeing can be attributed to the sudden resurgence in demand following the pandemic?” Nolan asked at the summit.

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

“We need to acknowledge that we have staffing and funding delays systemwide,” said Rich Santa, head of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “We have 1,200 fewer certified professional controllers than there were 10 years ago.”

Santa cited insufficient staffing and funding models and said better staffing would improve safety.

The major airlines, for their part, stopped short of pointing to specific issues.

“We’re trying to figure out what is going on,” said Nick Calio, president of U.S. airline trade group Airlines for America. Calio said the carriers were reviewing the incidents as well as their own operations to identify trends.

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Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from the state of Washington, is the chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation (which encompasses aviation). Following the summit, Cantwell called for the FAA to implement earlier NTSB recommendations, some of which have not yet been addressed.

“I think what we’re seeing here and feeling across these many stories is that we have to have the highest safety standards, and we have to have the investment in modern equipment that is going to give us those safety standards,” Cantwell said during a hearing on aviation workforces. “So that is what we are going to be pushing for here.”

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

Whether anything changes as a result of the summit remains to be seen. However, the presenters at the summit noted that improving safety was crucial.

“There have been far too many close calls,” Homendy said. “These recent incidents must serve as a wake-up call.”

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