Close call, turbulent flight add to aviation safety concerns

Federal officials have begun investigating a close call between planes in Boston and provided new details on Thursday about a harrowing incident at a Texas airport.

The National Transportation Safety Board said it didn’t determine exactly how close a FedEx cargo plane passed over the top of a Southwest Airlines jet last month in Austin, Texas, but there was little margin.

“We still believe the planes were within 100 feet of each other,” NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said in an interview.

An air traffic controller had cleared both planes to use the same runway, the NTSB said in a preliminary report. With visibility up to a quarter mile due to freezing fog, the FedEx pilots did not see the Southwest jet until its final seconds.

The NTSB is also investigating a Monday night incident at Boston’s Logan International Airport in which a Learjet pilot, who had been told to wait by an air traffic controller, began takeoff as a JetBlue aircraft approached to land on an intersecting runway. The JetBlue pilots pulled over to avoid a collision.

That and similar incidents in New York, California and Hawaii prompted the head of the Federal Aviation Administration to call for a “safety freeze” and sparked a debate over whether air safety is declining or whether the events are just an unusual cluster. of serious close calls.

“I don’t know if I can say it’s a trend, but these are troubling because it only takes one,” Homendy said. “That’s why we investigate incidents — so we can identify problems, especially when we see trends, and address them before they become a full-blown accident.”

Among the other recent incidents now under investigation:

– Last week pilots of a small plane aborted their landing in Burbank, California after a controller cleared another plane to take off from the same runway; the NTSB is investigating.

— A United Airlines jet crossed a runway at Honolulu International Airport for a Cessna cargo plane which landed on the same runway on January 23.

— The NTSB took the rare step of subpoenaing pilots of an American Airlines plane crossing a runway that a Delta Air Lines jet was using to take off on Jan. 13 at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. The US pilots initially refused to sit for taped interviews, but complied after being served subpoenas, Homendy said.

— Federal officials are looking again at an incident where a United Airlines jet taking off from Hawaii dived to within 250 feet of the ocean before recovering. United says pilots on the December flight will receive additional training.

Apart from the United plane coming down sharply after takeoff, the other incidents involved runway incursions, where a plane ended up on a runway when it wasn’t supposed to be there. A 2017 forum convened by the NTSB found that the most common causes of runway incursions were pilots ignoring air traffic controller orders or miscommunication between pilots and controllers.

“Runway incursions have always been a concern, but it looks worse because the system is so secure,” said John Hansman, a professor of aeronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Fortunately, we don’t have many accidents, so we focus on these high-risk precursors.”

Pilots are the last line of defense in aviation safety. In some of the recent incidents, particularly the one in Austin, pilots saw something wrong and reacted quickly.

The incidents could end any opportunity to relax experience requirements for newly hired pilots, something that smaller, regional airlines have been asking to help them cope with a pilot shortage. President Joe Biden’s nominee for the top job at the FAA, Phillip Washington, said on Wednesday that he opposes relaxing pilot qualification standards.

The close calls may also lead to demand for improved technology at airports and on board aircraft. Kennedy Airport has a ground surveillance radar designed to prevent runway incursions. It alerted air traffic controllers that the American Airlines plane was crossing an active runway. Only 35 US airports have that technology.

Investigators won’t be able to hear what pilots were doing before most of the recent incidents because the cockpit voice recordings were erased after two hours of flight. Since 2018, the NTSB has asked the FAA to require 25 hours of recording capacity, which would increase the likelihood of storing valuable information.

In addition to the close calls, there have also been several recent incidents of severe turbulence causing injuries to aircraft. In the most recent case, a Lufthansa plane flying from Austin to Germany diverted to Washington Dulles International Airport Wednesday night; seven people on board were injured bad enough to go to hospitals. The FAA said it is investigating.

The close calls have caught the attention of lawmakers, who questioned the acting FAA administrator about it. The officer, Billy Nolen, defended the security of the country’s air transport system last month while acknowledging the need for vigilance.

“We are experiencing the safest period in aviation history, but we don’t take that for granted,” Nolen told a Senate committee. “Recent events remind us that we cannot become complacent.”

Nolen, like airline industry executives, points out that there hasn’t been a fatal crash involving a U.S. airline plane since 2009, an unprecedented trajectory.

Still, he said at the hearing and in an internal memo, he formed a “safety review team” to examine the aviation system, beginning with a meeting in March “to examine what additional actions the aviation community needs to take to maintain our safety record.” .” Nolen said aviation leaders will examine which steps work “and why others don’t seem as effective as they once were.”

The FAA said Thursday the summit will take place on March 15 and will include representatives from commercial aviation, airports, labor and aviation experts.


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