In response to a series of concerning near-collision aviation incidents, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced its plans to conduct runway safety meetings at 90 airports in the coming weeks. The decision was made after an incident involving a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 and a Cessna Citation 560X business jet in San Diego prompted joint investigations by the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
The NTSB is currently scrutinizing seven runway incursion events that have occurred since the start of the year, including the incident in San Diego. This growing trend of near-miss incidents has raised alarm bells within the aviation community, prompting the FAA to take corrective action.
Earlier this year, in a bid to enhance air traffic control operations, the FAA acknowledged the prevalence of close calls and stressed the necessity for improvement. They acknowledged that the frequency of these incidents was unacceptable.
In an effort to address these concerns, the FAA has convened the “Runway Safety Action Team” meetings, scheduled to run until the end of September. These sessions will bring together representatives from various stakeholders including the FAA’s air traffic organization, airlines, pilots, and airport vehicle drivers. The goal is to collectively identify the unique risks to surface safety at each airport and subsequently formulate comprehensive plans to mitigate or eliminate these risks.
It’s worth noting that the FAA has been operating without a permanent administrator since April 2022. President Joe Biden’s initial nominee, Phil Washington, withdrew his candidacy in March, and a new nominee has not yet been named by the White House. In the interim, Deputy Transportation Secretary Polly Trottenberg has been taking on the responsibilities of acting FAA administrator while continuing her duties within the U.S. Department of Transportation.
An incident that took place on August 11th at San Diego International Airport underscores the urgency of the situation. An air traffic controller cleared the Cessna to land, despite Southwest Airlines Flight 2493 having already received instructions to taxi onto the same runway and await departure instructions. This lapse in communication highlighted the potential dangers posed by miscommunication between air traffic control and pilots.
This incident is not isolated, as a similar situation occurred in Austin, Texas, in February. In low visibility conditions, a FedEx cargo plane and a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 came within approximately 115 feet (35 meters) of each other. The controller had cleared the FedEx plane to land while also instructing the Southwest plane to depart, resulting in a dangerously close proximity between the two aircraft.
In light of these alarming incidents, the FAA organized a safety summit and released a safety alert to airlines, pilots, and other relevant parties in March. This underscored the critical need for ongoing vigilance and focused efforts on the mitigation of safety risks within aviation operations. As the industry continues to navigate the challenges of maintaining safe operations amidst increasing air traffic, it remains imperative for all stakeholders to collaborate and prioritize safety measures to prevent potentially catastrophic incidents.