The nation’s top accident investigator said Thursday that a surge in close calls between planes at U.S. airports this year is a “clear warning sign” that the aviation system is under stress.
“While these events are incredibly rare, our safety system is showing clear signs of strain that we cannot ignore,” Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, told a Senate panel on Thursday.
Homendy warned that air traffic and staffing shortages have surged since the pandemic. She said there has been a “lack of meaningful” training — and more reliance on computer-based instruction — by the Federal Aviation Administration and airlines, and too many irregular work schedules among pilots and air traffic controllers.
“Where you end up with that is distraction, fatigue,” she told the aviation subcommittee. “You are missing things, you are forgetting things.”
The NTSB is investigating six close calls, or what aviation insiders call “runway incursions.” The FAA identified 23 of the most serious types of close calls in the last fiscal year, which ended Oct. 1, up from 16 the year before and 11 a decade ago. Independent estimates suggest those figures grossly understate such incidents.
Thursday’s hearing included only a momentary discussion of pilot mental health, which is on travelers’ minds because of the arrest of an off-duty pilot accused of trying to disable a plane in midflight and a co-pilot who allegedly threatened to shoot the captain. Critics have pointed out that federal screening relies on pilots to disclose whether they are taking medication or being treated for mental illness including depression.
The FAA said separately that it will appoint a committee of medical experts and aviation and union leaders to make recommendations “on breaking down the barriers that prevent pilots from reporting mental health issues to the agency.”
The Senate hearing produced no new ideas for increasing safety but brought a new warning about the potential for travel disruptions over the upcoming holidays because the FAA doesn’t have enough air traffic controllers.
“We are not healthier than we were last year, controller-wise,” said Rich Santa, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “I think FAA’s own numbers indicate we have potentially six more air traffic controllers than we had last year.”
The union president said many controllers are forced to work 10-hour days or six-day weeks.
The Transportation Department’s inspector general criticized the FAA in a report this summer, saying the agency has made only “limited efforts” to fix a shortage at staffing at critical air traffic control centers.
Among the close calls in recent months, the scariest occurred in February in Austin, Texas. During poor visibility in the early morning hours, a FedEx cargo plane preparing to land flew over the top of a Southwest Airlines jet that was taking off. The NTSB has estimated that they came within about 100 feet (30 meters) of colliding.
An air traffic controller had cleared both planes to use the same runway. In other recent incidents, pilots appeared to be at fault by failing to follow orders from controllers.