A New York Times investigation found near-miss incidents are happening more regularly around the US than the public initially thought.
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A spike in near-miss events between commercial aircraft in the US this year has rattled the general public.
The Federal Aviation Administration has created a safety review committee to comb through data and look for trends.
The New York Times cited a shortage of air traffic controllers as a significant factor in the string of close calls.
The US airline industry has narrowly avoided what could have been some of the worst disasters in its history. And, for regulators, the incidents were too close for comfort.
In mid-January, a Delta Air Lines Boeing 737 was rolling for takeoff at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport when an American Airlines Boeing 777 crossed the same active runway, forcing the Delta plane to abruptly stop to avoid a collision.
In early February, a FedEx Boeing 767 cargo jet nearly landed on top of a Southwest Boeing 737 airliner in Austin, Texas, coming within 100 feet of each other. A JetBlue Airways plane and a private jet then had a “close-call” a few weeks later.
These high-profile events have been heavily reported on already, but safety data from the Federal Aviation Administration and analyzed by the New York Times suggests they are actually happening more than initially thought.
According to the Times, at least 46 incidents occurred in July alone, citing human error as a main factor in the near-misses — including one in which two planes operated by Frontier Airlines and Southwest Airlines came within 100 feet vertically of each other in Denver.
Some of the events are reminiscent of the deadliest plane crash ever — the tragic collision of two Boeing 747 jets in Tenerife, Spain in 1977 that killed 583 people. It’s history the industry doesn’t want to repeat.
A “call to action”
Former FAA acting administrator Billy Nolen made a call to action to address the spike in near-misses.
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Since March, regulators and aviation professionals have come together to mitigate the concerning near-miss incidents, including the FAA’s Tuesday announcement that it will hold safety meetings at approximately 90 airports across the US in the coming weeks.
“Sharing information is critical to improving safety,” Tim Arel, the COO of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization, said in a press release. “These meetings, along with other efforts, will help us achieve our goal of zero close calls.”
The move will complement the FAA’s newly-established safety review committee, as well as the safety summit it hosted in March to discuss ways to mitigate risks.
“The proximity with these recent events in terms of how close those aircraft got to one another definitely catches everybody’s attention. “Anthony Brickhouse, an air safety investigator and associate professor at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, told Insider. “And, the fact that these events are so high profile and garnered so much attention means that eyes are really on it and that exposure is a good thing.”
During breakout sessions at the safety summit, officials offered theories like inexperienced first officers and overworked air traffic controllers as contributing to the near-disasters.
The Times pointed to the challenges surrounding air traffic controllers, in particular, as a root cause. Not only are a majority of ATC facilities not meeting staffing thresholds, but controllers are also facing fatiguing work schedules that could impact performance — potentially putting safety at risk.
But, tired employees are not the only concern. Airline pilot and aerospace expert Kathleen Bangs told Insider that complacency could also be creeping in, especially since there has not been a mass casualty plane crash in the US since 2009.
“We have been in a stretch of historical unprecedented safety,” she said. “And, what that means is there can be a tendency for any system to get complacent when things are going so well.”
Flying is still safe
Delta airplanes line up on the taxi way after Delta Air Lines’ computer systems crashed on Monday, grounding flights around the globe, at Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S. August 8, 2016.
Despite mounting concerns, runway incursions are statistically rare considering millions of planes take off and land every year. And, according to FAA data revealed on Monday, the rate is trending down as regulators work to address risk.
The overall rate per one million takeoffs and landings has been decreasing since 2021 after the 2020 pandemic lull, and currently sits below 2019 levels — though the number is likely to change by the end of the year.
The most serious events — known as “Category A” and “Category B” incursions — were the highest in January at 1.0 per one million takeoffs and landings, but fell to 0.210 in June. The lowest rate, per the FAA, was in May with a 0.00 rate of occurrences.
The near crashes have also prompted more conversations about the importance of technology. Austin airport where the Southwest/FedEx event occurred did not have the same ground surveillance system that alerted the New York-JFK controller of the Delta/American near-crash.
The FAA has since announced a more than $100 million safety investment at 12 US airports to reduce runway incursions — granted, Austin isn’t one of them.
“Multiple layers of safety protect the traveling public, including Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems [TCAS] on commercial aircraft, surface safety technology at the country’s biggest airports, and robust procedures,” the agency said in a press release regarding the Times findings. “Air traffic controllers and pilots all play critical roles.”
TCAS, which alerts pilots to a possible collision, is one of the most critical safety systems in the cockpit and acts as another line of defense in the case of miscommunication or human error.
While technology is important, Brickhouse says humans are still essential to aviation safety.
“Technology is to support and to supplement the human, but never to replace,” he told Insider.
Despite the near-disasters, the chance of being in a fatal air crash is about 1 in 11 million — and Brickhouse emphasized it is still the safest mode of transportation. And, at the end of the day, all of the safeguards and redundancies — humans and technology — have worked together to prevent an accident.
“If you successfully drive to the airport, the riskiest portion of your travel is pretty much behind you,” he told Insider. “Aviation is still incredibly safe even though we do have close calls from time to time, and everything did work out.”