Top US accident investigator says close calls between planes show that aviation is under stress


The nation’s top accident investigator said Thursday that a surge in close calls between planes at U.S. airports this year is a “clear warning sign” that the aviation system is under stress.

“While these events are incredibly rare, our safety system is showing clear signs of strain that we cannot ignore,” Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, told a Senate panel on Thursday.

Homendy warned that air traffic and staffing shortages have surged since the pandemic. She said there has been a “lack of meaningful” training — and more reliance on computer-based instruction — by the Federal Aviation Administration and airlines. She said technology improvements could help avoid what aviation insiders call “runway incursions.”

Representatives of unions for pilots and air traffic controllers and a former chief of the Federal Aviation Administration were scheduled to testify at the same hearing.

The FAA said earlier this week that it will hold meetings at 16 airports before year-end to come up with plans to identify and reduce safety risks.

Among the airports hosting meetings airlines, pilots and drivers of ground equipment will be Dallas-Fort Worth International, Newark Liberty International in New Jersey, and Logan International in Boston. Those meetings are in addition to 90 that the FAA announced in August.

There have been many close calls in recent months, with the scariest occurring in February in Austin, Texas. During poor visibility in the early morning hours, a FedEx cargo plane preparing to land flew over the top of a Southwest Airlines jet that was taking off. The NTSB has estimated that they came within about 100 feet of colliding.

An air traffic controller had cleared both planes to use the same runway.

In other recent incidents, pilots appeared to be at fault.

The NTSB is investigating about a half-dozen close calls this year, and the FAA says there were 23 of the most serious class of close calls in the last fiscal year, up from 16 the year before and 11 a decade ago. Some estimates suggest those figures grossly understate such incidents.

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