Is commercial airline safety getting worse?

Photo (c) Jinggying Zhao - Getty Images

A New York Times investigation has raised that question

Without question commercial airline safety has vastly improved in the last two decades. However, in recent weeks there have been a number of high-profile close calls, where aircraft in the air or on the runway have nearly collided.

The New York Times reports these near accidents occur a lot more than travelers think. For example, it reports a Southwest Airlines jet had to abort a landing at Louis Armstrong Airport in New Orleans last month because another airliner was on the runway, preparing to take off.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says there are multiple layers of safety protecting the traveling public, including Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems on commercial aircraft, surface safety technology at the country's biggest airports and “robust procedures.”

Still, the agency says one close call is one too many. The FAA said it will hold a series of runway safety meetings at approximately 90 airports between now and the end of September.

Runway safety meetings

“Sharing information is critical to improving safety,” said Tim Arel, chief operating officer of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization. “These meetings, along with other efforts, will help us achieve our goal of zero close calls.”

During these meetings, officials from airports and airlines will identify unique risks to surface safety at that airport and develop plans to mitigate or eliminate the risks. Representatives from the FAA’s air traffic organization, airlines, pilots, airport vehicle drivers and others will participate, the agency said. 

The FAA points out that air travel has never been safer. It says U.S. airlines have transported billions of passengers since 2009 without a fatality.

The Times investigation warns that the streak could end at any time. Its investigators found near misses involving U.S. commercial airlines happen on average multiple times a week.

Not enough air traffic controllers?

“The incidents often occur at or near airports and are the result of human error, the agency’s internal records show,” the investigators wrote. “Mistakes by air traffic controllers – stretched thin by a nationwide staffing shortage – have been one major factor.”

Joe Schlosser, an aviation expert and vice president at ISN, agrees that the demands placed on controllers could be a factor.

"Air traffic control facilities are facing massive labor shortages right now," Schlosser told ConsumerAffairs. "As air traffic controllers work mandatory overtime, many are so fatigued that it is potentially impeding their ability to perform their jobs properly. The return of air traffic from pre-pandemic levels is only exacerbating the issue, as more commercial aircraft are in flight and on the runways."

In response to the Times investigation, the FAA has released data showing that the number and rate of “runway incursions” are steadily declining since the pandemic. The data show there were 1,697 in 2022 and 985 so far this year.

View From The Wing’s analysis of FAA data paints a more troubling image. It reports there were 46 near-collisions in July and 300 over the last 12 months.

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