Near-collisions at airports loom large in summer travel worries

Last year marked at least a seven-year high in near-collisions among commercial jets — with the summer accounting for nearly half, according to a POLITICO analysis of federal data.

And as a new travel season dawned this weekend, the next few months are expected to bring record-breaking traffic to the skies, testing airlines, airports and the Federal Aviation Administration’s overworked, understaffed air traffic controllers.

The surge of incidents in which planes nearly collided while landing or taking off, or narrowly averted crashing into one another on the tarmac, has added to nervousness about the safety of U.S. aviation — on top of worries about Boeing’s quality control problems and grumbling about delayed and canceled flights. The number of incidents has fallen so far this year, but two reported near-crashes last month in New York and Washington have kept up the pressure on regulators and airlines to avoid the next mass fatality in the skies.

Continued struggles to accommodate soaring demand for air travel since the pandemic have added to the strains. Dennis Tajer, an American Airlines pilot and spokesperson for its pilots union, said haste has been a culprit in “the recent near-tragedies.”

“With the summer high-demand travel season stretching the safety seams, it will be critically important to just slow down,” he said in an interview. “Every pilot, air traffic controller, mechanic, airline and the FAA need to slow down and take a minute for safety.”

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who chairs the Senate Commerce panel overseeing aviation, chalked last year’s poor performance up to “a combination of workforce, as well as just how congested our airspace really is.”

And with the airline industry predicting that air travel will churn out roughly 26,000 flights per day this summer, Duckworth said she’s “concerned about it.”

“It’s something we have to keep our eyes on,” she said.   

Last year’s count of 11 near-collisions involving commercial planes was more than double the rate seen the previous year, with five incidents alone in January and February, according to POLITICO’s analysis. It was nearly four times the number seen in 2019, the last year before Covid-19 caused air travel to plummet. As travel bottomed out, airline revenues did too, and many pilots, flight attendants and air traffic controllers retired or took buyouts.

Perhaps the most high-profile of last year’s incidents involved a FedEx cargo plane that came within 100 feet of landing on top of a Southwest Airlines jet taxiing on the same runway at Austin’s airport in February 2023. That episode sparked outrage from lawmakers and increased attention from the Department of Transportation.

That post-New Year’s spike so alarmed the FAA that the agency convened an urgent safety summit in March 2023 to try to reverse the trend, ultimately recommending a back-to-basics approach such as asking pilots and flight crews to “reduce distractions.”

The incidents stopped piling up that March, but only for a short while. As summer travel boomed, July and August saw another five incidents — three occurring at San Francisco International Airport on the same day. At San Francisco, two commercial jets barreled down a runway past another plane that was on its way to use a nearby runway.

The 11th and final one occurred in November around Thanksgiving.

This year hasn’t seen the same torrid pace, with no significant incidents through March, according to FAA data. However, at least two potentially serious incidents not yet included in the FAA’s dataset occurred in April — one in New York and one in Washington.

And there could be more — the FAA typically does not release that data until it’s done investigating an incident. The agency could not provide updated figures past March, or answer questions about how many other near-collisions are still under investigation and therefore not reflected in official totals.

Those two in April, however, garnered significant media attention and raised fresh concerns about whether regulators should be doing more.

On April 18, air traffic controllers at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport cleared a  Southwest Airlines plane to taxi across a runway where a JetBlue plane was starting its takeoff roll at the same time. The day before that, a Swiss Airlines flight aborted its takeoff at John F. Kennedy International Airport because four other aircraft were crossing the same runway downfield, the FAA said.

Bridgett Frey, the FAA’s communications assistant administrator, said in a statement that the agency and aviation industry are pursuing a “goal of zero serious close calls.” She pointed to how much serious near-collisions have decreased in the first three months of this year compared with 2023.

House Transportation Chair Sam Graves (R-Mo.), a private pilot who is licensed to fly commercial planes, said he wasn’t overly concerned ahead of the summer travel season, saying the U.S. is still regarded as the “gold standard in aviation safety.” The United States hasn’t had a fatal airliner crash since July 2013.

He suggested that it isn’t unusual for near-collision statistics to have peaks and valleys over time, but argued that it isn’t a persistent trend.

Still, he said, “anytime you have a near miss ... it’s a big deal.”

Graves also pointed to the recently enacted aviation law, noting that it requires the FAA to convene a new council on runway safety that will give lawmakers a better idea of what’s causing the incidents and what should be done about them.

“They’re going to start pulling data in and we’re going to look at everything — that’s the reason we did it, to study everything, and to make some decisions,” he said.

Duckworth also pointed to that law, which included provisions intended to ease the controller shortage, saying it’s “got some things that will fix it,” but acknowledged those are “more long-term” solutions. President Joe Biden signed that measure into law earlier this month.

Aviation system under strain as travel booms

Airlines are expected to carry out more than 26,000 daily scheduled flights this summer, an increase of 5.6 percent more than last year, according to the industry group Airlines for America.

A4A, which represents U.S. carriers, said airlines continue to cut back on some of their schedules, particularly to New York airports, where air traffic controller shortages are especially acute. Fewer flights help ease congestion on tarmacs, plus the risk of delayed flights.

“Safety is and always will be the top priority of the U.S. airline industry,” the trade group said, adding that airlines have been “preparing diligently to accommodate a record 271 million passengers this summer.” That approach also includes hiring employees across the industry.

Meanwhile, the FAA’s air traffic control workforce has been playing catchup for decades, due to a wave of retirements that struck at roughly the same time. In addition, controller training can take years, and the FAA’s ability to train more has been essentially capped at 1,800 per year, not all of whom make it through the rigorous training. The Covid-19 pandemic only worsened shortfalls as controllers left the workforce in even greater numbers.

The controller workforce is understaffed by about 3,000 people nationwide, according to the latest FAA controller staffing plan submitted to lawmakers earlier this month. That leaves the remaining controllers to manage an increasingly busy and complex airspace amid concerns about fatigue and mental health.

“We have had a persistent controller shortage, and that is one of the big [contributing] factors” to the raft of near-collisions, said retired Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the long-time chair of the House Transportation Committee.

An FAA-chartered independent panel of experts last year concluded that controller understaffing is a systemic problem that places “additional strain on the system,” a situation it called a “crisis” that makes flying riskier.

But it isn’t the only issue.

Despite more than $50 billion in federal subsidies to keep the airline industry afloat during the pandemic, carriers weren’t ready for how quickly travel roared back, starting in 2021 and continuing through 2022.

Amid that mismatch, airline cancellations and delays were rampant. One of the worst weekends for travel hit during the Juneteenth-Father’s Day weekend in 2022, where some 3,000 flights were canceled and tens of thousands more delayed.

Airlines drastically ramped up hiring and cut their schedules to levels that matched the staff they actually had available (action taken after some extra nudging from the Transportation Department). 

“We had problems that came out of Covid, specifically in terms of manpower, maintenance and oversight of our air traffic control system,” said Jim Hall, an independent aviation consultant who chaired the National Transportation Safety Board from 1993 to 2001. But Hall said airlines have since made significant strides to “address the problem that was created both by Covid … in terms of early retirements and layoffs.”

Now, according to the FAA, cancellations are down to 1.3 percent so far this year “and trending lower than they’ve been in recent years.”

Congressional dysfunction including stop-and-start funding and “stupid things like government shutdowns” don’t help, DeFazio said. (The FAA’s independent report on challenges to aviation also blamed Congress, among other things.)

DeFazio said that in a perfect world, controllers and pilots would have access to technology that helps them track planes and other equipment on the ground as well as in the air. That’s an idea that could see action soon.

One of the agency’s advisory committees is creating recommendations for cockpit alerting systems. The new aviation law also mandates more technologies that help controllers better see all sorts of moving parts on runways and taxiways, including ground equipment

“It would be better if we have the technology to prevent this,” DeFazio said. Until then, “it’s going to require an extraordinary effort on the part of the existing workforce, and vigilance.”

Chris Marquette contributed to this report.