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Fri, Aug 25, 2023

FAA Responds to New York Times Article on Close Calls

Administration Not too Pleased with Taking the Blame Fires Back with ‘Facts and Logic’

The FAA published a response to a recent article reviewing the apparently lackluster safety performance in an industry apparently - to the untrained eye, at least - beset by near-collisions and spookily close calls.

The page, entitled "Close Calls and the New York Times: What You Need to Know", the FAA maintains that the U.S. aviation system is the safest in the world. They do admit that some problems exist, while pointing out the myriad safety efforts and overall impressive record established in terms of reducing fatalities throughout the airline ecosystem at home. It references the recent safety summit, the provision of surface safety tech around the country, and the addition of 1,500 new air traffic controllers in fiscal year 2023.
 
 The NYT article in question, titled "Airline Close Calls Happen Far More Often Than Previously Known" makes mention of recent summertime incidents which caused the collective puckering of millions, seeing the specter of airline tragedy arise once again. The public's odd fascination with air disasters continues unabated, making even somewhat small incidents balloon in proportion in the public eye, taking on significance as a "near miss" (despite the fact they're better described as a "near-hit"). In July, a SWA flight was forced to go around at New Orleans International, stuffing the power levers and going for another lap around the patch to avoid landing on top of a Delta 737 about to take off. While that story lay fresh in the public eye, an American Airlines aircraft "narrowly missed a Frontier Airlines plane whose nose had almost jutted into its path." The Time continued. "Moments later, the same thing happened as a German Airliner was taking off. In both cases, the planes came so close to hitting the Frontier aircraft that the Federal Aviation Administration, in internal records reviewed by The New York Times, described the encounters as “skin to skin.”". 
 
Unfortunately, the FAA's riposte lays most blame at the feet of pilots, perhaps a bit unfair to those familiar with this summer's high-profile instances of almost-tragedies. The FAA says that 60% of runway incursions are the result of Pilot Deviations, with the remaining 40% of blame shared equally between vehicles/pedestrians and "operational incidents". They even show a chart illustrating the overall decrease seen in runway incursions per calendar year, with 2023 sitting comfortably below even 2020's nadir (1,160 incursions) at only 985 incidents so far. That includes all severities of runway incursion, from severe incidents of Category A where injury was "narrowly avoided" by providence or fate, all the way to the benign Category D. 
 
Bundling everything together in aviation may help to make a statistical case that wallpapers over recent errors in terminal control, but there's a tremendous difference in the public's interest in "runway incursions" when it comes to general aviation, and "near misses" involving airliners. John Q. Public doesn't care too much about a Bonanza having to go around when a Cirrus fumbles out into the runway sans approval - he cares when he hears about a 737 speeding to within a few feet of killing hundreds of people. Cessnas, Pipers, and LSA's puttering around at 100 knots with 2 souls aboard and 30 gallons of avgas do not make for luridly gripping Discovery Channel documentaries about "what went wrong" after a runway incursion. Boeings and Airbuses with 150+ people do. The FAA's attempt to shell game the public's eye with stats belies an issue they themselves have already acknowledged at their recent safety summit: Even a single close call is one too many.

Rounding out their response, the FAA points to its action items as determined at the March summit, like issuing a "safety alert to ensure operations are conducted at the highest level of safety", forming an Independent Aviation Safety Review Team, Investing $100 million to reduce incursions at 12 airports, launching a 'Stand up for Safety' controller campaign, and announcing steps that will "ensure supervisors devote their full attention to the operation and airfield during peak traffic". That last one is perhaps the most indicative of where things really lie behind the scenes, a tacit admission that the high-profile summertime incidents could be, at least to a greater degree than the FAA's willing to publicly own up to, attributed to its own in-house procedures. A busy, hopping ATC tower is busy enough as it is, but bureaucracy and busywork has a way of worming its way into every working hour. It wouldn't be all that surprising to know some error chains have a few links donated not just from the cockpit on the field, but the tower itself.

FMI: www.faa.govwww.nytimes.com

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