Near Disaster As Air Traffic Control Clears Fedex Plane To Land On Top Of Southwest Jet In Austin

FedEx freighter flight 1432 was cleared to land in Austin, while a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737, flight 708 to Cancun, was cleared to take off, using the same runway. The incident occurred around 6:40 a.m. on Saturday morning. Thankfully the FedEx plane pulled up and away, mere feet from landing on top of the passenger flight.

The FedEx Boeing 767 descended to within about 100 feet of runway 18-Left. The planes were vertically separated by only about 500 feet. As the Southwest flight took off, it banked right while the Fedex plane turned left. They were about 670 feet apart as they turned. Visibility at the airport was just one-eighth of a mile.

This incident comes less than a month after NOTAM system failure at the FAA shut down the entire country’s air travel system, and three weeks after an air traffic near-disaster at New York JFK between an America and Delta jet where the American pilots appear to have been at fault but where the air traffic system didn’t prevent the close call from occurring.

It’s time to begin a real conversation around modernizing air traffic control in this country. That includes the structure and culture, funding, and technology of the FAA’s Air Transport Organization. It won’t be solved by throwing more taxpayer money at the problem, the way U.S. airline CEOs advocate.

We need to look at a better organizational and funding model, like in Canada – fundamentally you want separation between the regulator and the service provider, rather than the FAA performing the air traffic control function and overseeing its own performance.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. This is scary but raises questions about FAA training and staffing at AUS more than anything else. Human errors are going to happen with any system and this appears to be a human error issue.

    The Fedex pilots managed to see disaster coming and save what would have been disaster. The Southwest pilots had no idea what was about to happen

  2. Gary, good luck with that. It was a plan they tried to push through, on and off, during the Obama Administration. Nobody bought it. The only reason it works for Canada is basically because on the one hand, they are much much smaller traffic volumes and rates in their airspace. On the other hand, it really doesn’t operate the way you would think. It is still heavily supervised, monitored, regulated and run by Transport Canada. Basically, the private companies really just act as administrators and run administrative chores, that’s it. What we really need here is, YES, more budget for the organization but also, better training and more controllers per shift. Not just enough to run a skeleton crew, which in the end i would bet is what happened here. More eyes and mouths in the towers, tracons and centers per shift. Otherwise, a major accident of catastrophic proportions is just waiting to happen. IMO.

  3. Controller should have included the phraseology “without delay” or “No delay on the roll” as he cleared WN for takeoff knowing that FDX was on short final.

    WN acknowledged that a heavy 767 was 3 miles out and showed no sense of urgency.

    Ultimately the controller will be at fault for not recognized this. You’d also think that ground radar wpild have showed WN not rolling and he could have cancelled their takeoff clearance and issued a go-around to FDX.

  4. @Gravelly Point Guy – smaller traffic volumes? sure, but they control traffic for the North Atlantic as well. And their lower costs are a function of their structure as well… and heavily regulated, exactly! We need better funding mechanisms and to *separate out* service provision and regulation, US ATC shouldn’t regulate itself. We could even do that simply by creating a different agency for the ATO!

  5. Not surprising at Austin. Airport needs some major improvements. It has grown too fast for the design of airport. Also the FAA needs to make southwest put some slack in their schedule. Southwest is always rushing and controllers all consciously and unconsciously accommodate them and try to squeeze them in on departures and arrivals all the time. They operate so differently from the rest of the airlines it has become a threat to safety.

  6. Story makes no sense, FedEx could be 100 feet from ground but 500 feet vertically from other aircraft that is on the ground?? 500 feet techincally meeting FAA general rule of aircraft operating well clear of buildings, persons other aircraft which is defined as 500 feet, but that doesnt sound dramatic. Timeline makes no sense on the voice transmission listed unless its minutes and seconds ie 9 minutes xx seconds, but still makes no sense, a 737 commercial aircraft would be well airborne in a minute and half after takeoff clearance even if they had to do an engine run up for deice reasons, and if tower told them to abort takeoff and they obviously were airborne already? FedEx was at about 3 miles when SWA cleared for takeoff, or roughly 900 above ground.. descending at 7-800 feet a minute on normal approach would put him on ground in the 1 1/2 minute? on the reported voice timeline. Also Canada ATC is smaller, lower volume of aircraft. They do control North Atlantic traffic, but ever had any insight into the cooperation of a Canadian ATC contractor during an investigation after an incident? Not any better than FAA from my experience.. Something happened in Austin, but as a 34 year military and commercial pilot I read reports like this and just shake my head. Fragments of information, interpretations and numbers that make no sense etc.etc.
    We can do better reporting!

  7. This is a terrible title to the article. It’s so misleading. You need to learn a thing or two about ATC before you write an article about it. We clear people for takeoff with aircraft on a 3 mile final all the time. It’s completely normal. This situation the controller did screw up but your title is completely wrong and totally misleading. If you’re a pilot, you know better. The flying public does not understand Aviation and making up titles like this is only going to hurt the industry as a whole. If you aren’t a pilot or someone in Aviation: educate yourself before you write such nonsense.

  8. All the calls for the FAA to be like Canada is that the US FAA controls a chunk of Canadian airspace in southern Ontario east of Detroit and west of Toronto specifically because there is so much traffic that is inbound to the US that Canada is not interested in handling traffic for a short time that will be immediately handed over to the US.
    The same, I believe is also true for parts of Mexican airspace in the US southwest.

    The US has good aviation relations with its neighbors and controls parts of the airspace of its neighbors meaning those countries handle less traffic than some people think – and doing so is by mutual agreement.

  9. The voice at 10:23 isn’t that of the tower controller, but the FedEx pilot… they see Southwest ahead and are trying to avoid that jet rotating into theirs. Well, “Southwest abort” isn’t enough to get most pilots to abort a takeoff at high speed, so it’s understandable that Southwest didn’t do that. If it were ATC saying that, the words would include “cancel takeoff clearance” or something similar. Listening to the audio, it’s pretty clear that the decision to go around, which averted a horrific accident, was by FedEx. Would be interesting to see this audio overlayed with the FR24 to see all the positions as things unfolded. The difference between clearing an aircraft still on the parallel taxiway for takeoff with somebody at or slightly inside 3 miles on final, versus an aircraft sitting in position and cleared for takeoff with traffic at the same point, is pretty significant. Given crummy visibility, and maybe slick or icy surfaces, an aircraft coming around the corner for takeoff won’t be moving at the same speed as on a clear, dry day. Hard to see why the tower controller didn’t intervene at or before the FedEx reaching 200′.

  10. There are so many problems here, and while many lay with ATC, some can be placed on the Southwest pilot as well.

    The callout clearing the WN for takeoff and cautioning him that there is a heavy on 3 mile final is not something to ignore while for 30 seconds before starting the toll. We’re talking about a plane eating 2.5 miles a minute. Exacerbating all this was that horizontal visibility on the runway was just 600-800 feet. All the more reason for everyone to be on their toes.

    The WN pilots were probably already past V1 rotation speed when the fedex pilot asked them to abort – which itself is highly unusual. They had to take off, and fly runway heading until the departure procedure called for a turn (at minimum at the end of the runway, typically).

    Lastly, there was the ATC mistakes:

    1. Clear a departure prior to a 3 mile arrival in this weather (no visibility)
    2. Insert a plane into the ILS protected area, and the runway, while the fedex was being auto landed (CAT III landing). It could have really messed up the fedex plane’s vertical or lateral guidance and the pilots wouldn’t necessarily have known- there was at least one accident where interference caused an abnormal signal.

    One thing everyone did was to maintain their composure- if you listen to ATC audio – everyone worked quickly and calmly to resolve the conflict, but make no mistake – these planes were 75 feet apart vertically, on the same heading, and both climbing.

    Every pilot is taught that situational awareness is on the pilot in command. In this case the fedex pilots demonstrated supreme decision making while southwest pilots and ATC a lack of both. To them it was another sunny day in Texas, not a foggy night of zero viz.

  11. THAT is the stupidest title I’ve heard from Leff yet. The tower DID NOT clear the FedEx plane to land on top of the departing flight as you boldly claim. That is just “plane” (sic) nonsense. Based on spacing, the weather conditions, etc., the tower will clear a plane for takeoff while another is on final. That keeps traffic moving. The tower controller CLEARLY stated that the FedEX plane was on final approach AND the distance. When a departing flight pulls up to the “double yellow lines” at the departure runway, they are suppose to be ready for takeoff OTHERWISE, they are responsible to notify the tower as the LANDING AIRCRAFT has the right of way. When the tower clears a flight for takeoff, they mean NOW, not when you feel like it. Leff, YOU need to stick with what YOU know about aviation and leave the real life in aviation to those of us who fly and/or teach Part 121 flying for a living. To Jedi above, V1 is NOT “rotation speed”. You ARE correct that encroaching into the ILS protected area is serious. Not having an Austin chart in front of me at this moment, I wouldn’t know what the go-around procedures are but the FedEx can “go around” at any point in his approach and can climb to the proper missed approach altitude for that segment BUT they also must proceed to the “missed approach point” before commencing any turn and head to the missed approach fix or follow the tower’s instructions.

  12. Not sure why anyone is trying to blame ATC…SWA screwed up. They were told about Fedex on 3 mile final and then took 27 seconds to initiate the takeoff.

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