It has been 14 years since a fatal major U.S. airline crash, but a slew of runway close calls at the beginning of the year has officials on edge. Though there were no casualties in any of the events, officials are investigating the incidents, and the Federal Aviation Administration called a safety summit to consider any link between them.
How many near-miss incidents are under investigation?
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating six incidents involving near collisions that happened over the first five months of the year at different airports in the U.S. The incidents under investigation occurred at airports in Austin, Baltimore, Boston, New York City and Santa Barbara, per The Wall Street Journal. The conclusions of the investigations aren't likely to be released for months.
The "most alarming" incident involved a near collision in February when a FedEx cargo plane almost landed on top of a Southwest Airlines flight taking off from the Austin airport, risking the lives of 131 passengers and crew, the Journal wrote. In January, a plane narrowly avoided running into another jet on a runway at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City after making a wrong turn. The FAA logged the cause of the incident as "pilot deviation" from federal regulations.
NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy recently declined to identify the cause of the incidents, citing ongoing investigations. However, she stated that the JFK incident flight crews were both experienced. Homendy said the board will "likely address various shortcomings related to training, technology and situational awareness," the Journal reported. If the pattern of near misses involving airlines at U.S. airports continues to increase, it will surpass any annual total of these types of incidents in over two decades, per a public FAA database.
What do experts believe caused the recent spike in near collisions?
In March, following the uptick in near collisions, the FAA hosted a summit in Washington, D.C., with aviation industry leaders and regulators to discuss the string of incidents at U.S. airports at the beginning of the year. Right before the safety summit, the agency's acting chief, Billy Nolen, told NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt that the skies remained safe for travel. However, he acknowledged officials' concerns as they started "to see things that we don't expect to see."
The summit attendees spent time speculating about what could have happened to cause the string of close calls, the Journal reported, citing a recording of the meeting. Many of the theories were linked to the "sudden bounceback in travel after the pandemic," the outlet summarized. With many veterans opting for retirement when the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted travel, many of the newer pilots and air-traffic controllers are inexperienced. Others pointed to the fatigue aviation industry staff feel due to intense work schedules, "or as some current and former government officials believe, complacency has simply set in," the Journal added. "Every piece of the system is under stress," Ed Sicher, the president of American Airlines' pilot union, reportedly said in a closed-door session of the meeting,
Speculations aside, the summit did not come up with a definitive answer to what could have caused the sudden rise of near collisions. "No one can say for sure what's behind the near misses," the Journal concluded, "leaving industry officials on edge as fliers begin to pack into planes for a busy travel season. "
It does appear that the trend of runway near misses is on the decline. At a press conference on the industry's plans for Memorial Day travel, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg "cautiously" said officials are "seeing early and preliminary indications that the level of severe runway incursions is coming closer to the norm."