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What’s Behind the Uptick in Close Calls at U.S. Airports? | Frommer's Gorodenkoff / Shutterstock

What’s Behind the Uptick in Close Calls at U.S. Airports?

An increase in near collisions at U.S. airports should be a "wake-up call," say government officials and aviation experts. What's causing the issue? And what's being done about it? 

The headlines have been jarring. In February, a FedEx jet and a Southwest Airlines plane nearly collided in Austin, Texas. That close call followed a January near miss at New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport between an American Airlines Boeing 777 and a Delta Air Lines plane. 

And those are just two harrowing cases among a larger “alarming pattern of safety lapses and near misses” detailed in an August investigation by the New York Times, which found close calls among commercial airliners happening, on average, multiple times per week.

Speaking to lawmakers last month, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) chair Jennifer Homendy revealed these dangerous runway encounters have been happening at a faster pace than in past years.

In fiscal year 2023, the NTSB tracked 23 serious runway incursions—up from 16 a year prior and more than double the 11 seen a decade ago.

These narrow misses have proved to be a disconcerting trend for the U.S. aviation system, widely viewed as among the world’s safest.

“Our safety system is showing clear signs of strain that we cannot ignore,” Homendy told members of a U.S. Senate subcommittee. “These incidents must serve as a wake-up call before something more catastrophic occurs.” 

Air traffic controller staffing a major problem

After the initial spate of close calls last winter, the U.S. Department of Transportation convened an independent safety review team to try and figure out what is driving these dangerous incidents, each of which puts dozens, if not hundreds, of lives at risk.

In a report released last month, that team sounded the alarm about aging technology and low staffing levels at U.S. air traffic control facilities, where highly trained professionals direct planes on the ground and in the air.

On top of equipment outages (caused by broken HVAC systems and water leaks) as well as antiquated computer technology, the report detailed lagging staffing levels as a potential culprit for the rise in aviation near misses. 

In August, there were about 1,000 fewer fully certified air traffic controllers nationwide than in August 2012, the report found. Contributing to the staffing shortage: years of missed hiring targets and training backlogs caused by the pandemic and past government shutdowns, among other factors. 

Airlines have long bemoaned these staffing issues as a driver of flight cancellations and delays, particularly when a smaller workforce has to get creative by rerouting planes during bad weather. Trying to mitigate these troubles is why the Federal Aviation Administration has temporarily allowed airlines to reduce flights in the heavily congested New York corridor, where FAA facilities have remained severely understaffed.

But the controller shortage also poses a safety risk, the recent report found. Fewer workers means fewer eyeballs on the movements of planes, not to mention fatigue among the workers who are there. 

Many air traffic controllers regularly work mandatory overtime, with 6-day weeks and 10-hour days, Rich Santa, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, testified on Capitol Hill last month.

“All of that comes together and can result in making mistakes,” said Shawn Pruchnicki, a former airline pilot and aviation safety expert at the Ohio State University’s Center for Aviation Studies. 

“Controllers just have their own version of mistakes they make when they’re fatigued, and the workload is high,” Pruchnicki continued. “And it can manifest itself as runway incursions.”

Numerous executives from U.S. airlines and industry groups have called on Congress to increase the FAA’s funding to improve technology and hiring efforts. But whether that comes to fruition in the agency’s pending reauthorization bill is ultimately subject to the same political forces faced by any other bill in Congress.

Speaking to Congressional leaders last month, Homendy of the NTSB emphasized what’s at stake.

“Thankfully, no one was hurt or seriously injured in any of these incidents,” she said. “But they could have been.”

Changes planned at the FAA—but are they enough?

Despite this year’s hair-raising incidents, a remarkable safety streak in the U.S. remains intact. It’s been nearly 15 years since the last commercial airliner crashed on American soil.

What's more, the FAA insists that “multiple layers of safety” protect the traveling public. This year the agency has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in improving taxiways at airports across the country in an effort to prevent incursions. Funds are also going toward recently announced changes aimed at increasing the FAA's capacity to train new controllers.

Additionally, the FAA has upped hiring targets for the coming years—though perhaps still insufficiently, per the recent safety team’s report.

Newly appointed FAA administrator Michael Whitaker pledged to make good on recommendations to improve safety.

“I think all of these initiatives show that safety is a journey of continuous improvement and we will strive to improve,” Whitaker said at a news conference just before Thanksgiving.

Ultimately, according to Pruchnicki of Ohio State, keeping things in perspective is key. The U.S. airspace sees 45,000 daily flights. And, he pointed out, it’s important to remember that the quick thinking of pilots and air traffic controllers prevented collisions in each of the recent cases.

“Yes, they are concerning,” Pruchnicki said of the close calls. “Yes, they could be considered precursors to an accident. Yes, it needs to be taken very seriously.”

However, he continued, “Should [you] stop flying because of it? No, I don’t feel that’s the case. I’m a former accident investigator, a safety expert, and I don’t give … a second thought [to] getting on airplanes and putting my children on airplanes.”