The United States (US) Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has publicly responded to a report by The New York Times, which alleged that near-misses are occurring at increasing rates across the US.
According to the FAA’s data, there have been 985 runway incursions across all four categories across the US so far in 2023, with a rate of 31 runway incursions per 1 million takeoffs and landings. In 2022 the rate was 32, while a year prior, it was 34. Throughout the past decade, runway incursions peaked at 35 per 1 million takeoffs and landings in 2017 and 2018.
The agency separates runway incursions into four different categories, ranging from D (no immediate safety consequences) to A (a collision narrowly avoided).
The FAA pointed out that so far in 2023, 60% of runway incursions were caused by pilot deviations, 20% were operational incidents, and the remaining 20% were vehicle/pedestrian deviations.
“The FAA maintains extremely conservative standards for keeping aircraft safely separated. Safety experts follow up on all events — even those in which no collision was imminent or even possible — and evaluate them for safety risks,” the FAA said.
Meanwhile, The New York Times alleged that commercial aircraft are involved in near-miss incidents more than was previously known. The publication said that following analysis of FAA internal records, federal safety reports, and interviews with current or former pilots, air traffic controllers and federal officials, near-miss incidents have taken place multiple times a week so far in 2023.
“The FAA and the aviation community are pursuing a goal of zero serious close calls, a commitment from the Safety Summit in March,” the agency continued in its statement.
The FAA also said that it has hired 1,500 controllers throughout the year, “in addition to the more than 2,600 controllers that are at various levels of training at air traffic facilities across the country”.
However, the publication also highlighted many near-miss incidents mid-air, including an incident where an Allegiant Airlines Airbus A320 and a Gulfstream IV private jet were on a collision course before the Traffic collision avoidance system or TCAS was triggered. Both pilots were forced to take evasive action, resulting in an Allegiant Airlines flight attendant being injured.
The New York Times analysis also found that, as of May 2023, only three of the 313 air traffic control facilities in the US had sufficient staffing levels determined by the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA).
In March 2023, the FAA asked airlines to reduce their flying programs within the New York City (NYC) area due to a staffing crisis at the New York Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facility (N90). In August 2023, the agency extended the slot waiver it initially granted in March 2023, arguing that this will “reduce corresponding delays which are likely to be exacerbated by the effects of ATC staffing shortfalls on significant NAS impact days”.
Furthermore, the FAA pointed out that it has begun to take steps since March 2023, outlining six different action items to address safety concerns in the US aviation system. These include the formation of an independent aviation safety review team, investing more than $100 million to reduce incursions at 12 airports, and beginning the search for a new surface situational awareness tool.
“We welcome scrutiny and look forward to the recommendations from the FAA’s independent Safety Review Team this fall,” the FAA concluded.
The US House of Representatives also recently passed the new FAA Reauthorization Act of 2023, addressing the threat to the country’s standard of safety, which is “being threatened by increasing global competition, rapid developments in technology, a shortage of aviation professionals, and FAA’s own inefficiency,” said Sam Graves, a Republican from Missouri and the chairman of the US House Transport & Infrastructure Committee (T&I), when he introduced the bill in June 2023.
One of the areas that the bill addressed was staffing shortages throughout all levels of the industry, including pilots and air traffic controllers.