After ‘increase’ in aircraft close calls, FAA holds a safety freeze

Following a series of close calls related to commercial flights, aviation leaders will meet on Wednesday to discuss the incidents and work to identify patterns and factors fueling risks for the industry.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced the safety freeze last month as part of a review of the country’s aerospace system that looked at structure, culture, systems and integration of safety efforts.

“We are experiencing the safest period in aviation history, but we cannot take this for granted,” said FAA Acting Administrator Billy Nolen. “Recent events remind us not to get complacent. Now is the time to stare into the data and ask hard questions.”

The summit will feature comments from Nolen, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy. The event will also feature a panel moderated by Nolen and former NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt, while attendees will include several union and lobbying officials.

Nolen will ask participants what they see in their own operations and solicit specific ideas on how to strengthen the country’s safety net with concrete actions.

In an interview, Buttigieg said he has seen an “uptick” in aircraft close calls in recent weeks. “This year we are on track to have more than 20 — and even one is one I would hate to see happen,” he told ABC News Transportation Correspondent Gio Benitez.

Buttigieg said he is “deeply concerned” about these incidents, but stressed the overall safety of the national aviation system.

“We need to make sure there’s continuous improvement, continuous attention to our national aviation system,” Buttigieg said. “Air travel in itself has not become the safest mode of travel. The US transportation system has had to learn from decades of crashes.”

Data shows that the number of more serious incidents has decreased over the past two decades, while the total number of incidents is increasing.

Buttigieg told ABC News that the recovery in aviation from the lows during the COVID-19 pandemic has “put pressure on the system” and that increased demand for air travel may also contribute to the recent close calls.

When asked if airline experience is to blame, Buttigieg pushed back, saying, “It’s not just experience in general.”

“We’re still talking about people,” he said. “And while, again, these cases are extremely rare — we don’t let any of them go by without taking a very close, focused look at how it happened, why it happened, and what steps can be taken to prevent it.” .”

Writing to those attending the safety summit on Tuesday, Buttigieg said he expects to accomplish three things: identifying “patterns and risk factors,” identifying how the various parts of the aviation system can “address risk,” and identifying and implementing ” additional steps”. to reduce those risks.

“It is our responsibility to review all factors and determine what steps are needed to strengthen a safety culture and reinforce safety practices, especially given the significant disruptions and changes in the aviation industry caused by a global pandemic,” wrote Buttigieg.

FAA and NTSB are investigating a series of incidents

The FAA and NTSB are currently investigating six close calls involving commercial aircraft in recent months, five of which were at airports and one over the Pacific.

In December, United Flight 1722 en route to San Francisco experienced a sudden loss of altitude over the Pacific Ocean, officials said. Shortly after takeoff from Maui, the Boeing 777 dropped to just 220 meters above the water in less than 20 seconds. The aircraft was then able to gain altitude again and continue to its final destination. There were no injuries.

On Jan. 13, an American Airlines flight crossed a runway at New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport without air traffic control clearance, causing a Delta Air Lines plane to abort its takeoff from that runway, according to the NTSB. The closest point between the two planes was about 1,400 feet, according to a preliminary agency report.

Also in January, United Airlines 384 crossed a runway at Honolulu Airport without air traffic control clearance. At that time, a Cessna landed on the same runway. According to the FAA, the Cessna came to rest about 1,150 feet from the United flight. There were no injuries or damage to the aircraft.

On Feb. 4, a FedEx plane landing at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Texas came within 100 feet of a Southwest Airlines jet taking off on the same runway, the FAA said. Both aircraft were cleared by air traffic control to use that runway.

And two more close calls in February, according to officials — one of which occurred at Florida’s Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport after an air traffic controller cleared an American Airlines flight to land on the same runway where an Air Canada Rouge plane was cleared. before had gotten takeoff from. The American flight self-initiated a go-around and the two aircraft were approximately 3,100 feet apart.

The other incident occurred at Boston Logan International Airport after a Learjet took off without air traffic control clearance as a JetBlue flight prepared to land on an intersecting runway.

Clara McMichael and Sam Sweeney of ABC News contributed to this report.






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