FAA Answers News Report Of Increased ‘Close Calls’


Yesterday (Aug. 21), the FAA responded to an alarming article in The New York Times, published the same day, addressing what the paper called dangerous increases in close calls and near-collisions. Citing public records as well as internal FAA communications, the paper called out “at least 46 close calls involving commercial airlines last month alone.” While acknowledging that increases in air traffic over the past decade are one reason for the increases in close calls, the authors also blamed a combination of understaffed Air Traffic Control facilities and insufficient funding to install ground-collision-avoidance technology at airports.

Though the Times also acknowledged there has not been a major airline fatality in the U.S. for 14 years, the paper nevertheless suggested that increases in the number of close calls mean that it’s only a matter of time before disaster strikes.

In its news release yesterday, the FAA said that runway incursions have actually decreased since 2018, and the U.S. aviation system is the safest in the world. But, the agency conceded, “one close call is one too many.”

The FAA said its action items implemented since March include:

Issuing a safety alert to ensure operations are conducted at the highest level of safety, including changes to procedures or training; announcing steps the agency’s Air Traffic Organization will take to ensure supervisors devote their full attention to the operation and airfield during peak traffic; forming an Independent Aviation Safety Review Team; investing more than over $100 million to reduce runway incursions at 12 airports; launching a “Stand Up for Safety” campaign for air traffic controllers; and initiating a search for new, more affordable airport surface situational awareness technology.

The FAA wrote: “After analyzing years of national runway incursion data, we initiated a comprehensive multi-year Runway Incursion Mitigation (RIM) program to identify, prioritize, and develop strategies to help airport sponsors mitigate risk. To learn more, read about the FAA’s runway safety program and runway safety fact sheet.”

Mark Phelps
Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

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    • Not that I would ever question the accuracy of the New York Times, BUT in addition to the passenger on the Southwest flight in 2018, the ramp worker in Montgomery, Ala. this past January was also a fatality (IAW NTSB Part 830).

  1. Pronouncements like “… and the U.S. aviation system is the safest in the world.” should never be made by public officials – it begs to be contradicted at the first strike of bad luck.

    “We are working hard so that the U.S. aviation system is the safest in the world.” Would have been both more humble and more truthful.

        • Under which admins was this very basic problem with entrenched bureaucracy not typical?
          Certainly none since Reagan, and I’m thinking it was actually typical then as well despite some positive examples one might highlight.

  2. When there is a lull in the 24 hour news cycle the unforgiving minute (to clobber Kipling) must be filled. Hence, the media will dredge, create, or otherwise manufacture anything that is remotely capable of capturing and holding the attention of viewers. It doesn’t matter that the nearly breathless talking head knows absolutely nothing about the ‘breaking news’ topic. Nor does it matter whether or not the story is actually true.

    I long for the time when we only had news at specified times of the day and the headlines were delivered by unbiased (for the most part) people you could generally trust to relay the facts without telling us how to think and/or feel. Those days are gone.

    • I used to really enjoy the news weekly magazines. When something is happening there’s a lot of noise. By the time the weeklies came out reporters had time to sift through the reports, noise, raw data, and ongoing news to create an informed report. Now we are the recipients of the raw data and must do the sifting ourselves. Most don’t bother and just latch onto whatever confirms their beliefs.

    • Those mostly unbiased sources weren’t. They did have a certain amount of restraint for awhile, but of course, that only lasted until they learned better how to play the game.

  3. The way I see it: Today’s system of ATC is too frequently at or beyond capacity. It’s been “fixed” countless times. The fixes are Band-Aids upon Band-Aids. Also, too dependent upon the inherent limitations of saturated voice communications. System needs transformation, not more Band-Aids. AI? Yup. Certainly a major component but with human oversight. Not to worry: unions and bureaucracy will delay throwing our ATC baby out with the bathwater.

    • Certainly an automated system will prevent all of the ills, except that pilots don’t always do what is expected of them. So it will fix half the system. Is that half (ATC) the source of most issues (incursions, near misses, etc.)?

      • It’s a ways off but AI can help spot anomalous behavior such as pilot or controller error and raise an alert. That’s likely to be the implementation we see.

    • You are spot on about about Unions stepping in the way. It is a virus in the FAA as the controller Union has been given nearly unlimited power to slow processes. Then the Union steps in and blames every element except the weak controller that caused the conflict and should be removed. And FAA management cowers to the Union. Remember membership in the union is what fills their cash drawers. Safety and common sense be damned. Luckily there are automated systems to rescue the inattentive controller (ASDE-X) when the controller could simply look out the window. Will the union ever acknowledge the system saved the day? The technicians of Technical Operations receive praise? No, a distraction of some type will be employed to praise the controller for being overworked and underpaid.

      • Just to be devil’s advocate here, as the FAA introduces more technology, gradually displacing humans with something more reliable, we should actually expect to see more and more automated systems saving the day. The humans will be busy doing their (now narrower-scope) jobs at higher volume. In the recent San Diego near miss, the controller was distracted by reading a clearance, and didn’t have the relative luxury of constantly looking out the window. It’s easy to say the controller should have waited for the incoming flight to land, but the volume of flights meant that wasn’t really an option – there’s a next flight and a next flight. Obviously, the design of the job is open to question in this case, but the point remains: as we introduce more automation there will be glitches, unanticipated effects of the changes – hopefully none fatal – and machines saving the day more often, because that’s why they’re there.

    • “System needs transformation, not more Band-Aids. AI? Yup. Certainly a major component but with human oversight.”

      Maybe AI-designed tools to help human controllers (such as predicting loss of separation), but definitely not as the primary means of control with a human simply watching over it.

  4. Did everyone forget one of the “Benefits” of ADSB out and the Next Gen modernization programs was touted to be REDUCED SEPARATION !

    By design, aircraft are being directed by ATC to fly closer to each other.

    • I see these “benefits” all the time. I get delayed all the time due to 20-30 mile enroute spacing, especially going northbound out of Florida! Even better going into the New York area!

      • Your 20-30 mile enroute spacing is filled every 5 miles with aircraft from other airports heading to the same destination. These restrictions are for volume, destinations, weather re-routes and yes availibility of controllers (short staffing)

  5. Somehow, in the not too distant future, system capacity needs to increase dramatically. I don’t know . . . Double? The solution is likely multi-pronged but something needs to be done to reduce reliance upon the limitations of saturated VHF voice communications. Only so much can be said, stepped on, repeated, understood and replied to in a given amount of time. Got’a be a better way. More Band-Aids?

    • You can put all the planes in the sky you want, but if there is no place to land them, all the airspace expansion won’t do any good. The ADS-B debacle proves that. Without more pavement you just end up with more planes sitting on taxiways and holding areas waiting for takeoff clearances.

  6. There needs to be more large planes. The current incentives all push the airlines to have too many flights.
    Airlines should be encouraged and aided in building and maintaining their own airports or airport facilities.
    Crew delays might need to be punished with fines to force innovation in scheduling.

    • So, if American Airlines say owned DFW, who would be allowed to fly there? Only American? Who would control the priority if some other airline chose to go there? American? Who controls in between the airports and sets that priority? Its the market that sets frequency of departures from airports andwhy there are hourly flights between sets of airports using smaller aircraft. There should be limitations on how many aircraft can be scheduled for any one piece of runway at a time. There can not be 30 departures scheduled for 8AM when only 1 aircraft can use it every 60 seconds. The insanity of allowing scheduling like that to occur is amazing!

      • If American owned DFW airport then how anyone else used it would be a matter for them to work out with American. Let’s say SWA owned Love. United could have built Addison and so on and so on. Likely, there would be airlines contractually using the fields of other airlines or other private facilities. If the government thought there had to be public airports, then they could still exist, but likely would not need to be so big.

        We have plenty of private airports, marinas, rail yards, and trucking terminals. The idea isn’t crazy. Just because we primarily use public airports for airlines doesn’t mean the best solution is still to have things that way.

        Finally, if you ran a private airport for an airline or other for profit company would you, knowing it could negatively affect the reputation and profit of your facility, let your tenant airlines schedule departures as you describe?

        • And the highway system should be the same then with trucking companies owning them? That is not how a national transportation system works. And you still haven’t figured out how aircraft get between the airports. Having an airline monopolize an airport is pointless unless you control all the routes into and out of that airport and through the NAS.

          • You are making no sense at all.

            The analogy to an airport is not the highway, it’s the trucking terminal.

            The sky is an ocean. It’s a good government function to police the skies. Running an airport is a business.

            Why is this so complicated?

    • Good point. I don’t fly but a few times per year, but I haven’t noticed anything resembling an empty seat on any of the flights I’ve been on. Even the redeyes. No chance of joining the mile – high – club outside the head.

      It’s a joke. (sorta)

  7. To quote Wayne Van Zwoll, ” A boast of competence in the sunny light of good fortune is easy to test.”