Dozens of close calls between aircraft in the US last month have raised serious concerns about the state of the airline industry, with airline workers now fearing a devastating incident is only a matter of time.
The alarming number of close calls reported by the Federal Aviation Authority in July has prompted fresh concerns from those in the industry about the need to address the shortage of air traffic controllers.
It is believed that the shortage has now reached critical levels, with 99 percent of air traffic control facilities across the US operating below capacity or even completely unfilled in some cases.
Recent incidents reported in the US include a near miss between a Southwest Airlines flight and a Delta Airlines 737 at New Orleans International Airport. The Southwest flight aborted its landing just seconds before a collision.
That incident was mirrored at San Francisco Airport on July 11, when two planes that were taking off nearly crashed into a Frontier Airlines plane that had just landed.
In another incident two-and-a-half weeks later near Minden, Louisiana, an American flight traveling at more than 500mph had to quickly pull up 700ft to avoid a collision with a United Airlines aircraft.
The alarming reports of near misses come as industry workers have reported worrying incidents in NASA’s voluntary safety reports, with one pilot in November admitting: ‘This stuff scares the crap out of me.’
The same pilot felt compelled to report an incident in which an air traffic controller cleared their flight to land in a path that appeared to be a ‘collision course’ with another flight.
The NTSB’s recent report on an incident at Boston’s Logan International Airport further underlines the concerns being felt in the industry. The report revealed a near miss between a JetBlue flight and a LearJet which took off without permission, only narrowly avoided by a ‘climb-out maneuver’ by the JetBlue pilot.
Commenting on the rise in close calls, aviation expert and pilot Juan Browne said: ‘These sort of incidents are increasing at an alarming rate. There’s a huge turnover in the industry, not only among pilots but amongst air traffic controllers, mechanics, painters, rampers. And with the state of hiring practices and training today and the relentless effort to do things faster, cheaper, and more efficiently we’re just one radio call away from having the biggest aviation disaster in history.’
Kit Darby, an aviation consultant, and former United Airlines pilot, added: ‘It’s a very large, very complicated system that’s relying on humans, and humans make mistakes.’
FAA spokesman Matthew Lehner said ‘one close call is too many’ and the organisation was dedicated to reducing these incidents. He reiterated the agency’s ‘extremely conservative standards for keeping aircraft safely separated.’
The last major airline crash in the US was in 2009, when Colgan Air Flight 3407 from Newark, New Jersey, to Buffalo, New York, crashed into a house in Clarence Center, New York, killing all 49 people on board and one person on the ground.
The most recent near misses, however, have left many in the industry fearing it won’t be long before a similar tragedy strikes US airspace once again.