Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg cites ‘increase’ in aviation incidents at FAA safety summit looking at ‘severe close calls’


Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Wednesday cited an “uptick” in recent aviation incidents and called on participants at a Federal Aviation Administration safety summit to help find the “root causes” of the problem.

“We are particularly concerned because we have seen an uptick in serious calls,” Buttig said in his opening remarks, referring to a series of near-collisions on runways in the US.

After the rare summit, the FAA said discussions on how to prevent incidents at airports ranged from overstressed pilots and flight attendants to better air traffic control technology.

“Pilots and flight attendants expressed concerns that they continue to experience stress in the workplace, including working long hours in adverse conditions,” the FAA said after closed-door meetings. “The main concern was the experience and attrition of the workforce.”

The summit comes after the FAA said it was investigating another close call between commercial aircraft. The most recent close call was at Reagan National Airport near Washington – the seventh since the start of this year.

On March 7, Republic Airways Flight 4736 crossed an unauthorized runway used by United Airlines Flight 2003 to take off, according to a preliminary investigation, the FAA said. The United pilot had just been cleared to take off, the agency said.

“An air traffic controller observed the situation and immediately canceled takeoff clearance for the United flight,” the FAA said.

The FAA’s security summit in McLean, Virginia, is the first of its kind since 2009 and kicks off a sweeping security review the agency has been conducting since the hacks.

The agency said it is looking for “ways to address areas where the existing safety system could be strengthened,” including finding new technology to help alert air traffic controllers when planes and other vehicles are on a collision course on runways and taxiways.

“The FAA appealed to industry to help identify technologies that could enhance the existing capabilities of surface surveillance equipment and to deploy this technology at all airports with air traffic control services,” the agency said.

Later this month, the FAA will hold a workshop on mitigating risks at America’s 200 busiest commercial airports.

“There’s no doubt that aviation is amazingly safe, but vigilance can never take a day off,” FAA Acting Administrator Billy Nolen said in a statement. “We have to ask ourselves hard and sometimes uncomfortable questions, even when we’re sure the system is healthy.”

Buttigieg said aviation interests need to identify “a very specific diagnosis and specific action steps” to reduce the number of near misses.

“It would be one thing if we found a particular piece of technology in the cockpit or a particular control tower where there were a lot of problems,” Buttigieg told CNN. “But what we’re finding is that pilots, ground crews and controllers seem to be experiencing that uptick. Some have described it as a kind of rust.”

“We’re not going to wait until something even worse happens to act now,” he told CNN, adding that efforts should result “in making sure we can save lives at airports across the country.”

In remarks at the opening of the summit – attended by security researchers, industry representatives, union leaders and others – the transport secretary said the gathering was about “the whole system, which means it’s about all of us”.

Buttigieg said Wednesday’s summit was the first in a series of coordinated events the FAA will hold to find out what’s working well and what “new steps” need to be taken to ensure safety.

Air travel has had a strong safety record and is the safest form of travel, Buttigieg said, but “we dare not” take that record for granted.

The chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board told summit participants that the safety agency has made seven recommendations on runway collisions that have not been enacted.

“One is 23 years old and still relevant today for technology pilots that warns of an impending collision,” said President Jennifer Homendy.

“How many times do we have to issue the same recommendations over and over and over again?” asked.

Homendy said she’s already found a common problem with the six hallway break-ins they’re investigating. In each case, the cockpit voice recorder, known as one of the black boxes, was replaced, preventing investigators from hearing what happened in the flight deck.

“All federal agencies here today must ask: Are we doing everything possible to make our skies safer? We asked ourselves that very question at the NTSB,” he said.

Nick Calio, president and CEO of Airlines for America, the trade association that represents major airlines, said at the summit, “There’s always an ongoing self-evaluation.”

Calio said airlines are reviewing their data to try to find ways to make aviation safer so runway calls like the ones the NTSB is investigating don’t happen.

“I don’t want to speculate too much about what happened there because everything is under investigation. And we’re all trying to determine what’s going on. Is this a trend? Is this a pattern?’ he said.

Rich Sanda, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, cited a lack of personnel at air traffic control towers as a possible culprit.

“Unfortunately, we have a staffing problem right now as air traffic controllers. We are 1,200 fewer certified professional auditors now than we were 10 years ago,” he told the summit. “The time has come to accurately and adequately staff the facilities.”

FAA Acting Administrator Billy Nolen told the summit that the agency “continues to hire” and is on track to hire 1,500 controllers this year and another 1,800 next year.

The NTSB is investigating a series of runway incursions involving commercial airliners. The near misses on US runways also prompted federal safety investigators to launch a sweeping review.

Last month, a Southwest passenger jet and a FedEx cargo plane came within 100 feet of colliding at an airport in Austin, Texas, and it was a pilot — not air traffic controllers — who averted disaster, according to Homendy.

In January, there was a disturbingly close call similar to this last one. A Delta Air Lines flight was taking off from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport when air traffic controllers “observed another aircraft crossing the runway ahead of the departing aircraft,” the FAA said in a statement.

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