Planes are coming mysteriously close to colliding at rates unseen in 20 years — and experts are stumped
Federal regulators and airline officials met in March to discuss a string of near-miss incidents across the US, WSJ reported.
At least six incidents in the first five months of 2023 involved planes touching or nearly colliding.
The meeting did not provide a concrete answer for why the incidents are happening at the highest rate in decades.
Planes have come dangerously close to hitting each other at airports across the US several times this year — and if the trend continues it would mark the highest rate of near-miss accidents in decades.
The National Transportation Safety Board is currently investigating six incidents involving near collisions in the first five months of this year at airports in cities including Austin, Baltimore, Boston, New York City, and Santa Barbara, the Wall Street Journal reported.
A March meeting between Federal Aviation Administration regulators and major airlines failed to produce a concrete explanation for the frequency of the near-collisions, per the Journal.
Citing a recording of the meeting, the Journal reported that officials and regulators speculated about several causes for the incidents, including a spike in inexperienced pilots and air traffic controllers as post-pandemic travel increased and worker fatigue resulting from busy travel schedules.
Some officials also hypothesized the incidents could be due to decreased staffing levels among flight staff and air traffic controllers that have contributed to flight delays and cancellations in recent months.
"Every piece of the system is under stress," Ed Sicher, president of American Airlines' pilot union, reportedly said in the March 15 meeting.
Runway incidents are on the rise
Air travel has become significantly safer as the surrounding technology has improved, with accidents steadily decreasing since 2000, but the recent string of incidents this year prompted concern among FAA and NTSB officials.
An NTSB spokesperson referred Insider to comments made by agency chair Jennifer Homendy earlier this week, who confirmed it is investigating six events in which a collision was narrowly avoided or there was "significant potential" for an accident.
"We all may have different views on the path forward to prevent such tragedies, but we all want progress," Homendy said, advocating for better staffing and training, as well as additional funding for the FAA to upgrade technology and hire more air traffic controllers.
According to an FAA spokesperson, the rate of "runway incursions" peaked from late 2022 into this year, topping out around 33 incursions per 1 million takeoffs and landings across the US, and dropping to about 19 per 1 million in April. The rate of incidents it classifies as most serious has dropped to about 0.5 incidents per 1 million takeoffs and landings, the spokesperson said.
"Our efforts are working, but we must remain vigilant and continue to find ways to prevent close calls from happening at all," Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen said in a statement to Insider.
The agency also earlier this week announced a $100 million investment in upgrades at 12 major airports across the country to reduce the risk of near-collision incidents happening in the future.
'Severe runway incursions is coming closer to the norm'
Several of the incidents — which involved a mix of full and empty planes — were relatively low-risk with airplanes touching or coming close to each other while traveling at low speeds on the ground.
However, a February incident drew significant concern when a FedEx plane was cleared to land at an Austin, Texas airport just after a Southwest plane was given the go-ahead to take off. The FedEx plane's pilots spotted the Southwest plane through the fog and pulled up before circling around and landing later.
The Journal reported that the plane was at an altitude of just 75 feet while the Southwest plane was directly below it, though Homendy said the FedEx and Southwest planes came within 115 feet of each other.
A commercial pilot with 16 years of experience told Insider's Rebecca Cohen in March that he has never seen an accident or near-miss in his decade plus of experience. He said it was possible the five incidents to that point were coincidence, but noted that every possible cause should be investigated.
While the findings from the NTSB's investigations likely won't be public for months, officials have indicated they think the string of runway near-misses could be over.
"I want to say this cautiously. We are seeing early and preliminary indications that the level of severe runway incursions is coming closer to the norm," US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said at a Tuesday press conference on the industry's plans for Memorial Day travel.
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