Whether it’s the Fedex freighter being cleared to land nearly on top of a Southwest Airlines departing flight, or an American Airlines Boeing 777 crossing in front of a Delta 737 taking off, while taxiing down the wrong runway, along with several other incidents over the past few months there’s a growing sense of danger: that air traffic control in the U.S. is narrowly averting disasters and that safety margin has been eroded.
However there’s been insufficient attention to this, focusing mainly when the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization breaks down because of antiquated equipment. The FAA ATO is understaffed. It has badly managed technology investments for decades, only finally working to eliminate the use of paper flight strips and pushing back against investments like remote towers.
The New York Times reports that there have been far more dangerous incidents than previously disclosed. In fact, they’re happening all the time. There were 46 “close calls” last month alone.
On the afternoon of July 2, a Southwest Airlines pilot had to abort a landing at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. A Delta Air Lines 737 was preparing to take off on the same runway. The sudden maneuver avoided a possible collision by seconds.
Nine days later, in San Francisco, an American Airlines jet was accelerating down the runway at more than 160 miles per hour when it narrowly missed a Frontier Airlines plane whose nose had almost jutted into its path. Moments later, the same thing happened as a German airliner was taking off. In both cases, the planes came so close to hitting the Frontier aircraft that the Federal Aviation Administration, in internal records reviewed by The New York Times, described the encounters as “skin to skin.”
And two and a half weeks after that, an American flight to Dallas was traveling at more than 500 m.p.h. when a collision warning blared in the cockpit. An air traffic controller had mistakenly directed a United Airlines plane to fly dangerously close. The American pilot had to abruptly yank the Airbus A321 up 700 feet.
The number of incidents has more than doubled over the past 10 years, with “about 300 accounts of near collisions involving commercial airlines” in the most recently-available 12 months of data.
The piece focuses on lack of staffing, and cites the FAA’s call for more funding. That’s part of the problem but it’s insufficient. The Times bizarrely cites President Reagan firing illegally striking air traffic controllers over 40 years ago as a cause. This doesn’t begin to explain the deterioration in the last decade, since the controllers let go in 1981 would no longer be working today.
Airlines and aviation unions have called for more taxpayer money, while hailing the FAA the “Gold Standard.” We shouldn’t be so complacent. We urgently need reform.
The FAA regulates itself. World aviation safety standards recommend having a separation between regulation and service provision. When an agency is in charge of self-regulation, you don’t get accountability. The ATO should be separated from its regulator. This can be into a different government agency, or into a private non-profit (as is done in Canada).
The Air Traffic Organization further is subject to the vagaries of congressional appropriations cycles which is poor for capital investment planning. A Canadian-style non-profit could issue bonds to raise money for major investment, funded by fees paid for service by the airlines themselves rather than taxpayers.