In the wake of a series of high-profile near-collisions at U.S. airports — and one terrifying plunge from the sky — the Federal Aviation Administration is hosting an impromptu safety summit Wednesday to assess whether changes need to be made to how American flights are regulated.
This comes as the FAA is investigating yet another close call in their backyard. On March 7 at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Republic Airways Flight 4736 crossed a runway without clearance, putting it in the path of another flight — United Airlines Flight 2003 — that had just been cleared for takeoff, the FAA told NBC News on Tuesday.
After clearing the United flight for takeoff, an air traffic controller saw what happened and canceled the clearance.
“United 2003 cancel takeoff clearance,” the air traffic controller said. “Aborting takeoff, aborting takeoff United 2003.”
The Republic pilot had initially been cleared to cross a different runway but turned onto the wrong taxiway, according to the FAA.
In an interview with NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt, acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen said that while it remains safe to fly, officials have grown concerned as they have begun “to see things that we don’t expect to see.”
“We expect every flight to operate as it should,” Nolen said. “And so we’ve had these events over the past few weeks. That gives us a moment to say, Let’s stop. Let’s reflect. Let’s ask ourselves the question: Are we missing anything?”
The full interview airs Tuesday evening on NBC’s “Nightly News” at 6:30 p.m. ET.
Near-collisions rattle flyers
Among the most high-profile of the recent incidents: An American Airlines flight crossed an active taxiway at JFK Airport in New York City as a Delta Airlines flight was about to take off, prompting the FAA to issue subpoenas to the American pilots; a Learjet 60 took off from Boston’s Logan International Airport without clearance and nearly collided with a landing JetBlue flight; and a FedEx cargo airplane trying to land at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Texas narrowly avoided hitting a Southwest Airlines flight preparing to take off.
In fact, FAA data show there have been fewer overall near-miss incidents over the past six months than in the same periods prior.
Still, compared with an average of four to 10 “serious runway events” or near misses a year over the past decade, Nolen said, recent months have produced more incidents “than you’d expect to see.”
That also includes a United Airlines flight taking off from Maui unexpectedly plunging to within 800 feet of the Pacific Ocean, causing terror aboard.
“It’s a good opportunity for us to just make sure, let’s go pressure test our assumptions,” Nolen said of the summit.
‘Pressures in the system’
Aviation experts have questioned whether one factor leading to the uptick in incidents is the swift rebound in flying in the wake of the pandemic. While the numbers remain just short of February 2020 levels, Nolen acknowledged a resurgence in air travel has affected the flying landscape.
“We’re coming out of the backside of this pandemic,” he said. “And … truly we’re seeing pent up demand for flying. Flying has come back with a vengeance, so to speak.”
That demand for air travel is coming at the same time as the aviation industry grapples with a wave of retirements that occurred as the pandemic bore down. Nolen said that while hiring is occurring “aggressively” to refill the positions, the combined weight of increased flying and ongoing hiring has produced “some pressures in the system.”
Amid record profitability for airlines, Nolen called on carriers to continue to create schedules that “match their capability and demands of the market.”
“We want to make sure as we look not only today but into into the summer and into the future that we’ve got that happening,” Nolen said.
Nationwide ground stop in January was the ‘right decision’
The FAA is also continuing to address concerns about the temporary nationwide ground stop imposed in January after its Notice to Air Missions (NOTAMS) system went offline.
Nolen said that the stoppage “was the right move to make in that moment.”
“What the flying public expect is that they’re safe, and that there’s a level of predictability there and we want to give them as much as we can,” he said. “I couldn’t guarantee that in that moment there. And so we made the right decision in the interest of safety to take a timeout, make sure the system was safe.”
But he acknowledged that the FAA must ameliorate a system where there can be “a single point of failure.” He praised Congress for recently pledging to provide funding so that the FAA can continue to upgrade its systems.
“What I’ve heard time and again: ‘We’re prepared to help you, we’re prepared to give you the the resources that you need,'” Nolen said of Hill officials. “And so we’re very grateful for that. Our mission is to make sure we get it right.”
‘Flying is very safe’
Despite the recent crop of troubling incidents, Nolen emphasized that flying in the U.S. remains “very safe,” noting there has not been a major fatality event since 2009, when Colgan Air Flight 3407, a subsidiary of Continental Airlines — now part of United Airlines — went down en route to Buffalo, New York, killing all 49 passengers and crew aboard.
“We have the safest most complex Airspace System in the world and it is very safe,” he said. “It is very resilient. And with that, we will continue always to never take that safety for granted. We will not become complacent.”
But the recent episodes nevertheless have the attention of safety officials, Nolen said.
“When we see a few events that pop up, we’re going to take a moment to say ‘Hey, is there something we’re missing here?’ Because this is this is an incredible record, and we want to keep it going.”