After near-collisions on airport runways, FAA calls for safety review

U.S. airports have seen an uptick in near-collisions involving commercial planes. The problem prompted the FAA to call for a safety summit, launching a review of standards and procedures to prevent catastrophe. Geoff Bennett reports on the close calls and discusses the possible factors with aviation correspondent Miles O'Brien.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    U.S. airports have seen an uptick in near-collisions involving commercial planes, a problem prompting the FAA to call for a safety summit, launching a review of safety standards and procedures, with the goal of preventing catastrophe.

    At airports across the country, one close call after another, the latest just outside Washington, D.C., at Reagan National Airport earlier this month, when a Republic Airways plane took a wrong turn, crossing the path of a United Airlines jet just as it was about to take off, prompting alarm at air traffic control.

  • Controller:

    United 2003, cancel takeoff clearance!

  • United Pilot:

    Aborting takeoff, aborting.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Six other recent near-misses are now being investigated by the federal government, including at New York's JFK, when an American Airlines plane crossed the runway as a Delta flight was taking off, in Honolulu, when a United flight crossed the runway as a cargo plane was about to land, and, in Austin, Texas, when two planes came within 100 feet of each other as one was landing and the other taking off.

    Last month, senators pressed acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen on the spate of near-collisions.

  • Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX):

    What can we do to make sure that doesn't happen again?

  • Billy Nolen, Acting Administrator, Federal Aviation Administration:

    It is not what we would expect to have happened.

    But, when we think about the controllers, how we train both our controllers and our pilots, the system works as it is designed to avert what you say could have been a horrific outcome.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    And, this week, the FAA convened a safety summit with aviation leaders and labor groups to figure out where the problems lie.

    Pete Buttigieg, U.S. Secretary of Transportation: We are particularly concerned because we have seen an uptick in serious close calls that we must address together.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    And aviation correspondent Miles O'Brien joins us now.

    So, Miles, can we say for certain whether the number of near-collisions is on the rise? Or is it possible we're just paying more attention?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Well, we certainly are paying more attention, aren't we, Geoff? And that's a good thing for all of us, because that ultimately is what leads to safety.

    Just because we don't have an accident doesn't imply we have safety. So we have to be aggressive about these things. Looking at the numbers, the FAA classifies these by severity. The top two most severe incidents are incidents where a near-collision almost happened or there was a potential for one.

    If you look back for — over airline operations since about 2016, there have been a handful of these per year of the top two categories. And then the most severe one, the one that is narrowly missed a collision, there have been only three over the past five years and none in 2022.

    So the fact that we're dealing with a half-dozen or more in the first quarter of 2023 indicates something truly is going on here.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    What are some of the factors that officials will be looking into as they delve into these investigations?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Well, one of the things they will be looking at is the aviation industry post-COVID.

    In the midst of the pandemic, there were lots of retirements, lots of layoffs. And as the flying public has returned to the skies, almost with a vengeance, we have a lot of new people, both in the cockpits, in the cabins, in the air traffic control tower cabs, and, for that matter, the people driving the vehicles that push and pull the airplanes and service them.

    So we have kind of a juniorocracy of going on there, which is not good. Now, on top of that, there been a lot of distractions. In January, we had that massive computer meltdown, which shut down the system for quite a while. We have repeated cases of unruly passengers, problems on board these aircraft. There have been concerns about 5G cellular communications interfering with the navigation.

    And so you have a system that is stressed and maybe doesn't have the most experienced people dealing with it at the moment.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    We should point out, though, that the FAA says that air travel is safe.

    The American aviation system hasn't had a fatal airliner crash in nearly a decade. Still, Miles, what can be done to improve the situational awareness for pilots and air traffic controllers?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Well, the FAA has tried to make this a focus. And they have done things like change the way they mark the runways and the taxiways. There are flashing lights indicating where an active runway may be.

    The charts which we receive as pilots indicate so-called hot spots at airports where there is difficulty. A couple of airports, Atlanta and Dallas/Fort Worth, have built these concrete so-called end-around taxiways, which make it possible for airliners to get to where they're going without crossing an active runway.

    That obviously creates a much safer situation. But the one they just built in Atlanta, which just opened recently, cost $81 million. And not every airport has that flexibility to do that. A place like Boston Logan Airport, which has all kinds of intersecting runways, doesn't have the turf to build extra taxiway space.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    To your point, we have an aviation system that has grown rapidly, but the number of runways in airports has not. The last new major airport in this country was opened in 1995, Denver International.

    Is it at all practical to imagine building new airports with safer runways?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Yes, it's tough in this country. Just think about China for a moment. They plan to build 200 airports over the next 15 years. That would — that would double the number of airports they have. But they don't have a messy democracy to contend with.

    It's difficult to start bulldozing places to create new airports and build new runways in this country. There's all kinds of permitting process. And there's a lot of neighbors who don't like this idea.

    But we should point out there are more than 5,000 airports in the United States, public use airports. Some of them are pretty small, but there are quite a few that are either military or civilian which are large and underutilized. And if we move some of the traffic there, that might solve some of this problem.

    But here's the dirty little secret. The airlines don't like this idea. They like their hub-and-spoke system, a couple of dozen airports that get a tremendous amount of traffic funneled into them. And they don't necessarily want to open up new airports, which opens up the possibility of new competitors, making it more difficult for them to make a buck.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Aviation correspondent Miles O'Brien.

    Miles, thanks so much.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    You're welcome, Geoff.

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