The FAA’s System For Responding To Air Traffic Control Near-Disasters Is Broken

This week there was a near-disaster as a FedEx cargo jet nearly landed on top of a Southwest Airlines flight in Austin. The FedEx Boeing 767 had been cleared to land, and the Southwest 737 cleared to take off. The two planes narrowly averted disaster.

And this followed an incident last month where an American Airlines Boeing 777 to London taxied down the wrong runway, right in front of a departing Delta 737. The Delta jet aborted takeoff at the last minute.

When that American-Delta incident occurred my first thought was to the Air Canada flight that nearly landed right where four planes were waiting to take off in San Francisco in 2017. The Air Canada A320 from Toronto was just feet above a United Airlines widebody when it initiated an aborted landing and go around. The United captain can be heard in an air traffic control recording saying “He’s on the taxiway.”

Watch the upper left hand corner of this video from terminal 2 security to see the plane pull up at the last moment.

Aviation watchdog JonNYC notes that there were procedural changes after the Air Canada near-miss but those changes do not seem to be followed in these two recent incidents. In all cases, the American, Delta, Southwest and FedEx planes continued to operate (though Delta not until the next day). As a result their cockpit voice recorders – which only capture the most recent two hours of data – were overwritten. But the FAA shouldn’t be allowing this.

In my view a pilot involved in a near-disaster shouldn’t be taking off, even aside from preserving data. The pilots in that American Airlines cockpit at New York JFK may not realize the impact on their mental state of what just happened. How did American Airlines let their London flight take off, after spending half an hour on the ground after its near-miss? I understand from multiple individuals, but do not know directly, that the airline did not even know about the incident when it happened.

The FAA’s Air Traffic Organization needs work to avoid situations like these, and the FAA – supervising itself – isn’t getting that done. The FAA should not be regulating itself. We need better funding of technology, culture change, and separation of oversight.

That doesn’t have to mean “privatization.” The Canadian model is a separate non-profit, but we don’t even have to do that. Just put the Air Traffic Organization into a new separate agency, build the culture ground up, and do longer-term funding for IT. Have the FAA serve as regulator.

The major airline pilot union today put out a statement calling for more taxpayer money, but calling the FAA the “Gold Standard.” We shouldn’t be so complacent.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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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