Close call and turbulent flight add to aviation safety concerns

Federal officials began investigating a close call between planes in Boston, and they provided new details Thursday about a harrowing incident at a Texas airport.

The National Transportation Safety Board said it had not determined exactly how far a FedEx cargo plane passed over a Southwest Airlines plane last month in Austin, Texas, but there was little margin..

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

An air traffic controller had cleared the two planes to use the same runway, the NTSB said in a preliminary report. With visibility reduced to a quarter mile due to freezing fog, FedEx pilots only saw the Southwest jet for the last few seconds.

The NTSB is also investigating an incident Monday evening at Boston’s Logan International Airport in which a Learjet pilot who was told to wait by an air traffic controller instead began to take off as a JetBlue plane swooped down. was approaching to land on an intersecting runway. JetBlue pilots stopped, avoiding collision.

These and similar incidents in New York, California and Hawaii led the head of the Federal Aviation Administration to call for a “security summit” and sparked a debate about whether aviation security is declining or if 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 concerning because it only takes one,” Homendy said. “That’s why we investigate incidents – so we can identify problems, especially when we see patterns, and address them before they become a full-fledged accident.”

Other recent incidents currently under investigation include:

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

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

— The NTSB has taken the rare step of issuing subpoenas for pilots of an American Airlines plane that crossed a runway that a Delta Air Lines plane was using for takeoff Jan. 13 at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. The American pilots initially refused to sit down for recorded interviews, but complied after receiving subpoenas, Homendy said.

– Federal officials are re-examining an incident in which a United Airlines plane taking off from Hawaii plunged less than 800 feet of the ocean before recovering. United says pilots on the December flight are receiving additional training.

With the exception of the United plane which descended abruptly after takeoff, the other incidents were “runway incursions” in which a plane ended up on a runway when it was not supposed to be there. find. A 2017 forum hosted by the NTSB found that the most common causes of runway incursions were pilots ignoring orders from air traffic controllers or poor communication between pilots and controllers.

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

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

The incidents could end any possibility of easing experience requirements for newly hired pilots, which smaller regional airlines have requested to help them deal with a shortage of pilots. President Joe Biden’s nominee for the top job at the FAA, Phillip Washington, said Wednesday that he opposes the relaxation of pilot qualification standards.

Close calls could also lead to demands for improved technologies at airports and on board aircraft. Kennedy Airport has ground surveillance radar designed to prevent runway incursions. He alerted controllers that the American Airlines plane was crossing an active runway. Only 35 US airports have this technology.

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

Apart from the close calls, there have also been several recent incidents involving severe turbulence causing injuries in planes. In the most recent case, a Lufthansa plane flying from Austin to Germany diverted to Washington Dulles International Airport on Wednesday evening; seven people on board were injured bad enough to go to the hospital. The FAA said it was investigating.

The close calls caught the attention of lawmakers, who questioned the acting FAA administrator about them. The official, Billy Nolen, defended safety of the country’s air transport system last month while recognizing the need to be vigilant.

“We are living in the safest time 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, point out that there has been no fatal accident involving a US airline plane since 2009, an unprecedented time.

Still, he said at the hearing and in an internal memo, he was forming a “safety review team” to review the aviation system, beginning with a meeting in March “to review additional measures that the aviation community must take to maintain our safety. save.” Nolen said aviation leaders will review which steps are working “and why others don’t seem as effective as before.”

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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