USA: How a plane crash was avoided at the last minute

The US NTSB's panel of experts determined that two planes almost collided

Screenshot 5 6 USA

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found that erroneous assumptions by an air traffic controller led to the February 2023 near-collision between a FedEx aircraft and a Southwest Airlines aircraft in Austin, Texas.

The two aircraft came within about 52 meters of each other when the FedEx Boeing 767 was forced to fly over the Southwest 737-700 to avoid a collision in poor visibility. It was one of at least 6 near misses last year that raised concerns about US aviation safety and strained understaffed air traffic control.

An air traffic controller had cleared both planes to use the same runway. He told the NTSB in an interview published last year that he assumed the Southwest plane would have already departed before the FedEx plane landed, given his "expectation bias" that "Southwest planes depart quickly."

The NTSB found Thursday that the probable cause of the incident was the controller's incorrect assumption that the Southwest plane would take off before the FedEx plane reached the same runway. He also cited a lack of situational awareness along with a lack of low-visibility training and the FAA's failure to install safety technology.

Training, adoption of existing technologies, recruitment

NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said the board wants to train controllers in low visibility and speed up the development of airport technology and cockpit alerts to prevent future near misses.

Homendy noted that the number of serious runway violations rose sharply in 2023 but declined in the first part of 2024. She added that the NTSB is looking into several recent incidents. "This really could have resulted in a disaster and the death of 133 people," Homendy said. “This should serve as a warning to many. These are warning signs and that means we need to take action now."

The NTSB also said the Southwest flight crew contributed to the incident by not informing the controller that more time would be needed before takeoff. Southwest said it shares the NTSB's "commitment to the mission of continuous safety improvement."

The NTSB investigates transportation incidents and accidents to determine probable cause and makes safety recommendations, but it is not a regulatory authority and does not issue fines or penalties. The FAA said the rate of serious runway impacts in the first three months of 2024 was down 59% "and the FAA and the aviation community continue to pursue the goal of zero serious impacts."

Three thousand air traffic controller job vacancies and the over-intensification of work are taking their toll on controllers.

Service understaffed by 3.000 air traffic controllers, overtime and six-day mandatory employment with heavy workload

The Southwest flight to Cancun, Mexico, with 123 passengers and five crew members on board, has departed safely. Three crew members were on board the FedEx aircraft.

The NTSB raised significant concerns about the training of FAA air traffic controllers in low-visibility conditions such as those in the Austin incident. NTSB staff are requesting additional training as well as additional communications between controllers and flight crews. The Austin control tower had not conducted training on low-visibility operations during at least the two years before the incident, the NTSB said.

The FAA is struggling to deal with a persistent shortage of air traffic controllers and has been forced to drop minimum flight requirements in New York as a result. In several facilities, inspectors are forced to work overtime and six-day work weeks to cover shortages. The FAA, the US Civil Aviation Administration, is understaffed by 3.000 inspectors. The workload is huge and controllers have to manage many aircraft at the popular airports.

The board is again calling on the FAA to install surface detection technology to detect near misses at all major airports, something it has done for more than 30 years. Austin did not have surface detection technology in 2023. The FAA will install the Surface Awareness Initiative system (surface radar to provide a clear picture of traffic on the runway) in Austin by June 30.