What’s behind a string of US airline near misses?

By Sam Cabral
BBC News, Washington

March 16, 2023 at 2:18 p.m. GMT

Updated 2 hours ago

Image source, Getty Images

Rising demand for air travel and pandemic-related work stoppages are likely responsible for a series of tight decisions on US airport runways.

So say aviation industry leaders who met for an impromptu safety summit on Wednesday to address the spate of recent incidents.

The gathering came a day after the launch of another federal investigation into a near-miss between planes.

It is the seventh aircraft accident to be investigated this year alone.

Federal officials are currently investigating six “runway incursions” — as well as the horrific dive and near-collapse of an airplane in the Pacific — for causes and commonalities.

The latest near miss happened on March 7 at Washington DC’s Reagan National Airport, when a Republic Airways plane crossed a runway without permission, forcing an already cleared United Airlines flight to abort its takeoff.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is investigating the incident, said an air traffic controller intervened to safely divert the United pilot.

Officials at the Washington-area safety summit hosted by the FAA on Wednesday agreed there had been a “surge” in incidents, with several calling for the near misses to be treated like real accidents.

“The lack of a fatality or accident does not mean safety is in place,” said Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board. “We can always do more to improve safety.”

The emergency summit — the first of its kind in 14 years, according to CBS News — is being seen as a “call to action” for the industry and an opportunity to assess whether regulatory changes are needed.

But the problem, experts say, is that airlines are still recovering from the turmoil of the past three years. Not only has the pandemic prompted early retirements, mass layoffs and financial hardship across the industry, but airlines have gone from bleeding funds early in the outbreak to a flood of customers desperate to make up for lost travel time.

According to Laura Einsetler, an airline pilot with over 30 years of flying experience, the last time the industry suffered such a severe shock was the September 11 terrorist attacks, an event she argues took the sector more than a decade to to recover from it.

“What we’re seeing now over the past year is this really rapid increase in air traffic and we’re trying to replace that loss of 20-25% of our staff quickly [during the pandemic] hiring people and trying to bring them up to speed straight away,” she told the BBC.

All of this adds up to a tight aviation sector, she said, because increased demand for air travel likely coincides with an overworked and under-skilled workforce.

For example, panellists at Wednesday’s summit noted that there are 1,200 fewer air traffic controllers in the US today than there were ten years ago.

“The pressure is always there to get as many of us in and out of airports as possible,” Ms Einsetler added. “We have to slow down and be aware of the situation.”

FAA data shows that although the most serious airline near-calls have declined over the past two decades and there have been no fatal traffic accidents since 2009, the overall number of incidents has increased.

Still, safety experts insist flying in the US remains safe, arguing that widespread recent near misses account for just a fraction of the 45,000 flights that take place every day.

“We in the US have a very secure air transportation system,” said Dr. Hassan Shahidi, President and CEO of the independent non-profit Flight Safety Foundation.

“What we need to do is ensure that we understand the root causes of these incidents and that the industry comes together to address them in the short term.”

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