Central Oregon DailyUS accident investigator; close calls between planes show aviation under stress

US accident investigator; close calls between planes show aviation under stress

US accident investigator; close calls between planes show aviation under stress

Airplane taking off as seen from terminal

(AP) The nation鈥檚 top accident investigator said Thursday that a surge in close calls between planes at U.S. airports this year is a 鈥渃lear warning sign鈥 that the aviation system is under stress.

鈥淲hile these events are incredibly rare, our safety system is showing clear signs of strain that we cannot ignore,鈥 Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, told a Senate panel on Thursday.

Homendy warned that air traffic and staffing shortages have surged since the pandemic. She said there has been a 鈥渓ack of meaningful鈥 training 鈥 and more reliance on computer-based instruction 鈥 by the Federal Aviation Administration and airlines, and too many irregular work schedules among pilots and air traffic controllers.

鈥淲here you end up with that is distraction, fatigue,鈥 she told the aviation subcommittee. 鈥淵ou are missing things, you are forgetting things.鈥

The NTSB is investigating six close calls, or what aviation insiders call 鈥渞unway incursions.鈥 The FAA identified 23 of the most serious types of close calls in the last fiscal year, which ended Oct. 1, up from 16 the year before and 11 a decade ago. Independent estimates suggest those figures grossly understate such incidents.

Thursday鈥檚 hearing included only a momentary discussion of pilot mental health, which is on travelers鈥 minds because of the arrest of an off-duty pilot accused of聽trying to disable a plane聽in midflight and a co-pilot who allegedly聽threatened to shoot the captain. Critics have pointed out that federal screening relies on pilots to disclose whether they are taking medication or being treated for mental illness including depression.

The FAA said separately that it will appoint a committee of medical experts and aviation and union leaders to make recommendations 鈥渙n breaking down the barriers that prevent pilots from reporting mental health issues to the agency.鈥

The Senate hearing produced no new ideas for increasing safety but brought a new warning about the potential for travel disruptions over the upcoming holidays because the FAA doesn鈥檛 have enough air traffic controllers.

鈥淲e are not healthier than we were last year, controller-wise,鈥 said Rich Santa, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. 鈥淚 think FAA鈥檚 own numbers indicate we have potentially six more air traffic controllers than we had last year.鈥

The union president said many controllers are forced to work 10-hour days or six-day weeks.

The Transportation Department鈥檚 inspector general criticized the FAA in a聽report this summer, saying the agency has made only 鈥渓imited efforts鈥 to fix a shortage at staffing at critical air traffic control centers.

Among the close calls in recent months, the聽scariest occurred in February in Austin, Texas. During poor visibility in the early morning hours, a FedEx cargo plane preparing to land flew over the top of a Southwest Airlines jet that was taking off. The NTSB has estimated that they came within about 100 feet (30 meters) of colliding.

An air traffic controller had cleared both planes to use the same runway. In other recent incidents, pilots appeared to be at fault by failing to follow orders from controllers.

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