‘One close call is one too many:’ Senators discuss preventing airport runway near misses

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If you feel like you’ve heard about more close calls on airport runaways lately, you’re right.

Federal transportation officials say while these near misses are still rare overall, they are also happening more often.

“One close call is one too many,” said Tim Arel, Chief Operating Officer for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Air Traffic Organization.

On Thursday, members of a Senate subcommittee heard from the aviation industry and the agencies responsible for safety about this problem.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), there were 23 serious runway incursions in 2023. That is up from 16 in 2022 and 11 a decade ago.

Thankfully, no one was seriously hurt in the incidents.

“The near misses we’ve been seeing recently are not normal,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois). “They are a warning that our aviation system is under stress.”

“We must continually reevaluate our system to make sure we have the most safe possible in play,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas).

Sen. Duckworth showed a simulated example of a close-call in Austin, Texas when a Southwest airplane and a FedEx cargo plane narrowly avoided a crash and came within 100 feet of each other.

The incident is now under federal investigation.

“It only takes one missed warning to become a tragedy,” said Jennifer Homendy, NTSB Chair. “One incorrect response to destroy public confidence in a system that has been built over decades.”

Aviation industry experts said a big part of the problem is overworked staff and staffing shortages.

“Air traffic control is already a highly stressful profession,” said Rich Santa, President of the National Air Traffic Controller Association. “Working 200 hours per month layers on significant fatigue and inserts additional risks.”

Both lawmakers and transportation officials agreed it’s critical for Congress to act to make sure there’s enough funding to address these safety concerns.

Earlier this year, Congress agreed to a temporary deal to extend funding for the FAA through December.

But lawmakers need to pass a long term plan that includes new safety standards and funding for the next five years, known as the FAA Reauthorization Act.

“I refuse to be complacent in waiting to act until the next runway incursion becomes a fatal collision,” said Duckworth.

“Dangerous incidents also further highlight the need for Congress to pass FAA reauthorization,” said Moran.

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