More Airlines Are Encountering Near Collisions—and No One Knows Why

Convened by the Federal Aviation Administration and held at an office outside Washington, D.C., the meeting focused on a string of serious incidents at U.S. airports this year.  (AFP)
Convened by the Federal Aviation Administration and held at an office outside Washington, D.C., the meeting focused on a string of serious incidents at U.S. airports this year. (AFP)

Summary

  • As summer travel season kicks off, regulators and carriers are scrambling to address potential safety threats; personnel strains stemming from the pandemic may be a factor

Riding a 14-year streak without a fatal major airline crash, the skies over the U.S. have never seemed safer. That wasn’t the takeaway from an unusual meeting of senior aviation-industry officials and regulators in March.

Convened by the Federal Aviation Administration and held at an office outside Washington, D.C., the meeting focused on a string of serious incidents at U.S. airports this year. The most alarming: a near-collision on a foggy day in early February, when a FedEx cargo plane nearly landed on top of a Southwest Airlines jet taking off from the Austin, Texas, airport, risking the lives of 131 passengers and crew. In January, a pilot’s wrong turn on a New York runway almost led to a collision.

The officials tossed around theories for the close calls, many focusing on strains stemming from the sudden bounceback in travel after the pandemic. Some cited a lack of experience among newer pilots or distractions facing air-traffic controllers. Staff across the aviation industry may be fatigued from intense work schedules, went another line of discussion. Or, as some current and former government officials believe, complacency has simply set in.

“Every piece of the system is under stress," Ed Sicher, president of American Airlines’ pilot union said in a closed-door session of the March 15 meeting, according to a recording reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. A spokesman said the pilot union has amplified messages to its members to remain aggressively focused on safety.

No one can say for sure what’s behind the near misses, leaving industry officials on edge as fliers begin to pack into planes for a busy travel season.

“It will be on everybody’s radar during the summer," George Novak, president of the National Air Carrier Association, a trade group, said in an interview.

Better technology and years of collaboration between industry and government officials have dramatically reduced fatal crashes since 2009, when 50 people died in a plane crash in upstate New York. There have been two other fatalities involving large passenger planes since then. In 2018, a passenger near a window on a Southwest Airlines flight was killed after a fan blade ruptured during a flight, puncturing the fuselage. The following year, a passenger died after being hit by a propeller blade when a PenAir flight overran a runway in Alaska during a landing.

But if a pattern of serious close calls involving airliners at U.S. airports early this year keeps up, it would top any annual total of such incidents in more than two decades, according to a public FAA database.

At John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, a plane in January made a wrong turn and nearly ran into another jet on a runway. The FAA has logged the incident as one due to “pilot deviation" from federal regulations. There have also been serious close calls this year in Santa Barbara, Calif., Baltimore and Boston.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating six airport close calls, and the agency isn’t likely to release its final conclusions for months. Chair Jennifer Homendy declined on Tuesday to say what may have led to the incidents, citing the investigations, though she did note that both flight crews in the JFK incident were very experienced. She said the board would likely address various shortcomings related to training, technology and situational awareness.

The Austin episode is putting the spotlight on the role of air-traffic controllers who manage thousands of flights each day across the country, sometimes spacing multiple jets loaded with passengers just moments apart. The actions of the pilots are also under scrutiny, according to government officials. Neither the pilots nor controllers have been publicly identified by air-safety officials.

A fog had settled over the airport that morning, but the facility was calm, with little traffic to start the day, according to a preliminary NTSB report about the episode.

An air-traffic controller cleared a FedEx plane to land, and then advised a Southwest jet it could begin rolling down the same runway for takeoff. It started to do so.

About a minute later, the captain of the FedEx plane asked the controller to confirm he could land, because he was concerned about the Southwest plane, the pilot later told the NTSB. The controller confirmed the FedEx plane was cleared to land and the jet descended toward the runway. Then the FedEx pilots caught a glimpse of the Southwest plane’s silhouette through the fog.

“Southwest abort," one of the FedEx pilots said.

The Southwest plane continued its takeoff. The FedEx pilots executed a “go-around," climbing and then circling back to land. No one was injured.

Rates of serious runway incidents fell in recent years after regulators and the industry made a concerted push to address them, including by adding sensors and warning lights at certain airports.

The Austin airport wasn’t equipped with technology that would have helped let controllers know about the potential conflict—the type of system that alerted controllers to the near collision at JFK.

Many industry officials worry that inexperience among pilots and flight controllers is compounding any problems. Starting in early 2020, carriers grounded much of their fleets and slashed their schedules as would-be passengers stayed home before Covid-19 vaccines emerged. Airlines urged employees to take buyouts or retire early, and legions of experienced pilots obliged.

Travel surged back much faster than they expected, and airlines struggled to replenish their ranks quickly enough. That has meant pilots are speeding through career milestones—getting pulled up from small regional carriers, from smaller planes to bigger ones, and upgrading from first officer to captain—more quickly than in the past.

“My biggest concern is, are we making absolutely sure we are not shortcutting training," the NTSB’s Homendy told reporters on Tuesday. “I hear from those out in the field, whether it’s in a cockpit, or in ATC, or on the ground about how they feel like they’re getting rushed through training, and they’re making certain intervals faster than their predecessors. And so that is concerning for me."

Current and former FAA officials said the agency saw early-warning signs in the summer of 2021.

In August of that year, as travel started to rebound, the agency urged airlines to monitor staff for a lack of recent flight experience and check for potential fatigue-related errors by front-line employees, among other steps, according to a memo the FAA distributed at the time.

The FAA also struggled to bring on new air-traffic controllers, train them and continue training existing controllers who weren’t fully certified for the work. In 2020, the FAA temporarily closed its main training academy and paused on-the-job training because of the pandemic.

By that September, the number of fully trained controllers at the agency had slipped to 10,268, the lowest over a decadelong period that ended last autumn. The numbers have improved somewhat since then, but the FAA still had fewer fully trained staff at air-traffic facilities as of last September and a smaller pipeline of newer employees to train than 10 years earlier.

Among staffers working at one type of facility, 20% of controllers were still at the earliest stages of their training as of September 2022, the FAA has said. In recent budget documents, the Transportation Department requested additional funding to help the FAA catch up.

At the closed-door session of the March 15 FAA safety meeting, David Garrison, senior vice president of corporate safety and security at Delta Air Lines, acknowledged training challenges as a reason the industry has struggled to return to normal. “The reality is even if we have everybody hired, the proficiency and the ability of the system is not where it has been in the past," he said.

Sicher, the American Airlines pilot union chief, said at the meeting that pilots are working longer and declining to extend their workdays due to fatigue. “At the same time, we’ve got new guys sitting in cockpits that are supposed to be the resilience in the system, the backup for the captain," he said, referring to first officers. “They’re new guys. They’re just learning."

During a Delta analyst call in April, Chief Executive Ed Bastian said there is no evidence tying inexperience to the recent close calls, and that the airline has added procedures, training and focus on the operation to account for a younger workforce.

Air-safety officials are taking a fresh look at their existing methods for tracking risks to spot what they may be missing. Airlines and regulators share nonpublic data about safety problems to target incipient threats before they result in incidents or accidents.

“We need to be really honest with ourselves about whether we have done all we can," United Airlines’ safety chief Sasha Johnson at the March 15 meeting. “We’ve had a very focused back-to-basics approach at United and I think, especially given what we’ve gone through, it’s warranted."

A United spokesman said Johnson was referring to the airline’s approach in light of recent years of upheaval in the aviation industry. As it monitors for emerging risks, he said, United has been focused on training and promoting safety for all employees, regardless of experience level, urging them to follow standard operating procedures.

The FAA’s top air-traffic manager said his group would make sure that supervisors of controllers devote their full attention to airfields during peak traffic times, according to a memo. The agency is also holding mandatory briefings on air-traffic basics.

The agency in late April appointed a panel of former industry and government officials to examine ways to improve the FAA’s safety oversight. Its recommendations are due in October. Airline and pilot unions have been urging vigilance and amplifying existing safety protocols.

This week, the FAA said the rate of serious incidents at U.S. airports had leveled off and showed signs of receding.

“I want to say this cautiously—we are seeing early and preliminary indications that the level of severe runway incursions is coming closer to the norm," Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Tuesday.

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