NTSB has reported multiple planes almost colliding. Why U.S. aviation is strained — and what it means for your travel
Several close calls at U.S. airports have raised concerns about safety in our aviation system. What is being done to address these issues, and how will they affect travel?
The chairperson of the National Transportation Safety Board, Jennifer Homendy, told a Senate panel last Thursday that a rise in near-collisions in U.S. airspace is a sign that our aviation system is under stress.
The NTSB has investigated seven instances in 2023 of runway incursions, incidences that occur when an unauthorized aircraft or other vehicle is on or near a runway and narrowly avoids a collision. The closest call occurred in February in Texas, when a FedEx cargo plane came within 100 feet of a Southwest Airlines jet, per The Associated Press.
“While these events are incredibly rare, our safety system is showing clear signs of strain that we cannot ignore,” Homendy told the Senate.
Homendy recently spoke at the Air Traffic Control Association’s Global Conference and Expo, where she noted that the U.S. has the “safest airspace in the world.” However, she urged her colleagues not to conflate the absence of accidents with the presence of true safety, and listed the seven near-misses as evidence.
Why are these close calls on runways happening?
Homendy said the staffing shortages caused by the pandemic have put a strain on air traffic controllers. According to The Associated Press, Homendy said this has caused the Federal Aviation Administration to rely more on computer-based instruction rather than “meaningful” training.
Additionally, pilots and air traffic controllers are facing irregular work schedules and long hours, which Homendy said could cause distraction and fatigue. Rich Santa, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said some controllers work up to 10-hour days and six-day weeks, per The Associated Press.
How will this affect air travel?
Santa warned the shortage of air traffic controllers could negatively affect holiday travel by causing flight delays.
“We are not healthier than we were last year, controller-wise,” he said. “I think FAA’s own numbers indicate we have potentially six more air traffic controllers than we had last year.”
According to Travel Weekly, airlines are still facing the pilot shortage caused by the pandemic, although numbers are starting to improve. This will continue to affect airlines with potential delays and cancellations, especially as airlines become busier during the holidays.
What is the NTSB doing to address these issues?
According to The Associated Press, the Senate hearing did not produce new efforts to increase aviation safety. However, Homendy offered several solutions in her address to the Air Traffic Control Association.
The most pressing issue is the lack of staffing, which the FAA is hoping to address by hiring and training new air traffic controllers, per NPR. Homendy addressed staffing concerns, but said investing in technology would be the most effective way to improve air safety and called for further financial support of new aviation surveillance technology.
“I saw what it’s like to manage traffic at the most heavily utilized runway in the nation, first with surface surveillance technology and then without,” Homendy said. “The difference was night and day.”