Here's What the FAA Says It's Doing About All the Recent Runway Incidents

The agency is responding to a bombshell report on the alarmingly high level of airplane near-misses.

If it feels like you've been hearing more and more about airplanes coming very close to colliding with each other on or near the runway at US airports, a new report from the New York Times this week confirmed those suspicions in anxiety-inducing detail.

According to the Times analysis of internal Federal Aviation Administration records and federal safety reports, there were 46 documented close calls involving commercial US airlines during the month of July alone. Among the examples cited were a Southwest flight's aborted landing at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport that came within seconds of a possible collision with a Delta plane that was taking off, as well as an American flight that had to abruptly go 700 feet higher into the air to avoid a United plane. Two of the encounters were so close they were described as "skin to skin" in internal records. Most of these incidents, the report noted, are not immediately publicly disclosed.

The report notes that although the US has not had a major plane crash in more than a decade, aviation experts are concerned that the increased regularity of these near-misses happening could bring that streak to an end sooner than later. Based on FAA data cited in the Times, the number of these airplane near-misses has increased almost 25% over the past decade.

In response to the Times report, the FAA issued a statement calling the US aviation system "the safest in the world, but one close call is too many." The agency said it is working with the aviation community to pursue a goal of "zero serious close calls." It also noted, in response to reports of the air traffic control staffing shortage being a key contributor to the problem, that it has hired 1,500 air traffic controllers this year (though the Times reports that the agency is losing more than 1,400 controllers to retirements and other departures this year). In a separate news release this week, the FAA also announced it is holding safety meetings involving key stakeholders at about 90 US airports between now and the end of September to "identify unique risks to surface safety at that airport and develop plans to mitigate or eliminate those risks."

The FAA also has noted that it publishes information on near-collisions to its website, and shared data indicating that these "runway incursions" have actually been trending downward since the pandemic began.

FAA data on airplane near misses at airport runways
Courtesy of the FAA

Finally, on Wednesday the FAA announced the awarding of more than $121 million in funding to eight airports across the country to "reduce the risk of runway incursions." The funded projects include reconfigured airfield layouts and new lighting systems. The funding was secured through the FAA's Airport Improvement Program and the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

The FAA is also reportedly seeking additional funding to hire and train more air traffic controllers and make further improvements, as the Times noted that, as of May, only three of the nation's 313 air traffic facilities were meeting air traffic control staffing targets set by the FAA. The staffing shortage means that many controllers are working six-day workweeks leaving them fatigued, burnt out, and that a major incident could result from the current conditions.

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Joe Erbentraut is the Editorial Director of News at Thrillist. Follow Joe on Twitter.