Commercial airlines in the US racked up staggering 46 ‘close calls’ in last month alone
- Dozens of close calls in July are part of an alarming number of near-misses in the US this year
- Federal Aviation Authority reports reveal such incidents are happening weekly
- Human error is often to blame and a shortage of air traffic controllers has been blamed
Dozens of near-misses between aircraft in the US last month highlight the alarming number of incidents which have taken place this year.
There were 46 ‘close calls’ in July, according to reports shared by the Federal Aviation Authority, and airline workers fear it’s only a matter of time before a devastating incident in the US.
Recent examples include several cases of aircraft almost colliding during take-off or landing at major US airports. Others include a mid-air near miss between two planes traveling in excess of 500mph.
Industry workers have blamed a shortage of air traffic controllers which has forced many in the profession to work mandatory overtime. The demands of the job have left some burned out and even using alcohol and sleeping pills to relieve stress.
A shocking 99 percent of air traffic control facilities in the US are understaffed, according to the New York Times, which found 310 out of 313 do not have enough workers.
Some, including New York’s regional facility and a Philadelphia tower, are operating at around 60 percent of staff or less.
Incidents uncovered by the Times’ review of preliminary FAA incident reports from July include one on July 2 when a Southwest Airlines flight landing at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport came just seconds from hitting a Delta Airlines 737 that was preparing to take off from the same runway.
The Southwest flight aborted its landing and narrowly avoided a crash.
On July 11 in San Francisco, two planes that were taking off nearly crashed into a Frontier Airlines plane which had just landed. The Frontier jet was waiting to cross a runway with its nose perilously close to the path of the two jets.
Officials said the encounters were ‘skin to skin’.
A third incident two-and-a-half weeks later involved a near-miss between an American flight and a United Airlines aircraft near Minden, Louisiana. The American pilot, flying at more than 500mph, had to quickly yank the Airbus A321 aircraft up 700ft to avoid a collision.
There has not been a major plane crash in the US for more than a decade.
While fatal incidents involving small, personal aircraft can occur several times per year, the last fatal crash involving a US airline 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.
Details of other incidents, along with complaints about the industry from workers, are also kept in a NASA database. These voluntary submissions include a recent report from a airline captain who said in November: ‘This stuff scares the crap out of me.’
The pilot reported 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.
In another report from January this year, an air traffic controller wrote: ‘Is it going to take people dying for something to move forward?’
FAA spokesman Matthew Lehner told the Times that existing safety protocols had ‘virtually eliminated the risk of fatalities aboard US commercial airlines’.
But he said ‘one close call is too many’ and the FAA’s objective was reducing the number of these incidents.
‘The FAA maintains extremely conservative standards for keeping aircraft safely separated,’ he said.
‘Safety experts follow up on all events — even those in which no collision was imminent or even possible — and evaluate them for safety risks.’
Air traffic controllers have told the FAA that the shortage of staff is ‘plain dangerous’.
In a safety reported filed last year, one said: ‘Controllers are making mistakes left and right. Fatigue is extreme. The margin for safety has eroded tenfold. Morale is rock bottom. I catch myself taking risks and shortcuts I normally would never take.’
‘It is only a matter of time before something catastrophic happens,’ the controller said.
Earlier this month, details emerged of a frightening near miss between a JetBlue flight landing at Logan International Airport in Boston and a private jet which took off without permission.
The National Transportation Safety Board revealed the incident, on February 27, was captured in a chilling photograph from the JetBlue flight’s cockpit which shows the LearJet aircraft obstructing the runway as it came into land.
Only the quick-thinking of the JetBlue Flight 206 pilot prevented a collision, investigators said. The pilot performed a ‘climb-out maneuver’ to narrowly avoid the other aircraft.
The LearJet’s 63-year-old captain – flying for Hop-A-Jet, a Florida-based private charter company – had been told to lineup and read back the air traffic controller’s instruction. But the pilot ‘then began the takeoff-roll instead’.
He later told investigators: ‘I cannot understand what happened to me during the clearance, the only thing that comes to my mind is that the cold temperature in Boston affected me, I was not feeling completely well and had a stuffed nose. My apologies.’
He only learned about the near miss after arriving at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport.
The private jet’s crew was notified ‘they had taken off without authorization and caused an airplane that had been cleared to land on runway 04 to execute a go-around, passing about 400′ above them.’
The report into the incident said: ‘The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this incident to be: The Hop-a-Jet flight crew taking off without a takeoff clearance which resulted in a conflict with a JetBlue flight that had been cleared to land on an intersecting runway.’
The JetBlue aircraft, a Embraer 190, was just 30 feet from the ground and approaching the intersecting runway when the two aircraft came closest to one another.
The frightening incident followed a string of other near misses at US airports this year, prompting experts to warn the industry is facing ‘the biggest disaster in its history’ if the trend isn’t reversed.
In February, a Boeing 767 FedEx cargo plane landing at Austin-Bergstrom International came within less than 100ft of a Southwest Airlines 737 aircraft that was taking off from the same runway.
Analysts say only the quick-thinking of the FedEx pilot prevented a collision.
The incident follows a similar near miss at John F. Kennedy International in New York City on Friday, January 13, when a Delta flight was forced to perform an emergency stop during takeoff while an American Airlines plane crossed the same runway.
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, mainters, 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.’
In both the JFK and Austin-Bergstrom incidents, experts have said directions issued by air traffic controllers appear to have been an issue.
Kit Darby, an aviation consultant and former United Airlines pilot, told DailyMail.com that he believes safety protocols to avoid near misses are adequate, but added: ‘It’s a very large, very complicated system that’s relying on humans, and humans make mistakes.’