Buttigieg ‘concerned’ about increase in airline close calls

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Wednesday that he’s “concerned” about a recent increase in airline near-misses and called on air carriers and his own agency to figure out why the country has seen “more mistakes than usual” for an industry that hasn’t had a deadly crash for almost a decade.

Buttigieg was speaking at a safety summit called by Billy Nolen, the acting head of the Federal Aviation Administration, following a handful of high-profile close calls — including one incident in Austin, Texas last month where a FedEx cargo plane came within 100 feet of landing on top of a Southwest Airlines flight that was taking off from the same runway.

“While the data remains clear that aviation remains an exceptionally safe form of travel, we take nothing for granted and we are particularly concerned because we have seen an uptick in serious close calls,” Buttigieg said.

The summit is intended to convene various pieces of the aviation industry, including airlines, airports and associated unions, along with safety regulators, to try to identify and address any potential red flags that may be hiding in the data each airline must report.

Jennifer Homendy, the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating all of the recent near-misses, said each one is complicated by the lack of cockpit voice recordings. Typically, these devices record on a two-hour loop.

“The six from this year all have one thing in common: The cockpit voice recorders were all overwritten,” Homendy said. She also noted that her agency has since 2018 recommended that planes be equipped with a cockpit voice recorder capable of storing at least 25 hours worth of audio — a standard that she said European regulators have had in place for more than a year.

Homendy said the Austin incident and a second incident in Burbank, Calif. were especially alarming instances of planes coming dangerously close to each other. In Burbank, where a Mesa Airlines flight was forced to go around a SkyWest flight as it was taking off, Homendy said the two planes came within 300 feet of each other.

“Too often we’ve seen the federal government and industry act after an incident, after lives are lost, once headlines are made,” Homendy said. “Our entire mission at the NTSB is to prevent that next accident.”

After the roundtable, Homendy told reporters she’s frustrated that that the FAA hasn’t implemented a series of recommendations her agency has had open — in some cases for years — even as it calls a safety summit to search for answers about what’s wrong with the aviation system.

“We’ve essentially given you the road map on how to improve safety,” Homendy said, adding that the unimplemented recommendations are “the most frustrating thing for us.” That includes the open recommendation on cockpit voice recorders.

In response, the FAA observed that airlines are free to upgrade their cockpit voice recorders if they want, and that the FAA is working on a rule to require it. The FAA also said that the NTSB has rated the FAA’s responses as “open-acceptable response” on the handful of safety recommendations that Homendy name-checked on Wednesday.

A POLITICO review of Federal Aviation Administration data shows that the first two months of 2023 showed a rise of near-collisions involving commercial planes across the country. During January and February, commercial jets experienced close calls at a higher rate than the previous five years combined.

Homendy said the NTSB is investigating six close calls at runways across the country since the start of the year. Additionally, the NTSB is investigating two wrong-way landings last year and two separate severe turbulence incidents on the same day in Hawaii last December, one incident where 36 people were hurt and another where a flight came within 800 feet of hitting the Pacific Ocean shortly after takeoff.

While all of those incidents remain under NTSB investigation, Homendy said that high turnover in the aviation industry since the pandemic, an increasingly congested airspace and the lack of adopting seven NTSB recommendations related to airport runways are all contributing factors to the troubling pattern of near collisions that contributed to the need for Wednesday’s summit.

“Today is not an academic exercise,” Nolen said. “We have to take these six near misses and treat them as if they have happened and that’s why we’re here today.”

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