Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg cites “surge” in aviation incidents at FAA safety summit reviewing “serious tight calls” – Boston News, Weather, Sports

(CNN) — Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg on Wednesday cited a “spike” in recent aviation incidents and urged attendees at a Federal Aviation Administration safety summit to help find the “root causes” of the problem.

“We’re particularly concerned because we’ve seen an uptick in serious near misses,” Buttigieg said in his opening statement, referring to a series of runway near misses in the United States.

After the rare summit, the FAA said discussions about how to prevent incidents at airports ranged from overworked pilots and flight attendants to better air traffic control technology.

“Pilots and flight attendants have expressed concern that they continue to experience stress in the workplace, including working long hours in adverse conditions,” the FAA said after closed-door meetings. “A major concern was the experience and turnover of the workforce.”

The summit comes after the FAA said it was investigating another close call between airliners. The most recent close encounter was at Reagan National Airport near Washington, DC — the seventh since earlier this year.

On March 7, Republic Airways Flight 4736 crossed a runway that United Airlines Flight 2003 was using for takeoff without clearance, according to a preliminary review, the FAA said. The United pilot had just been released for takeoff, the agency said.

“An air traffic controller noticed the situation and immediately canceled the United flight’s take-off clearance,” the FAA said.

The FAA security summit in McLean, Virginia, is the first of its kind since 2009 and ushers in a comprehensive security review the agency is conducting in the wake of the assaults.

The agency said it was looking at “ways to address areas where the existing safety system could be tightened,” including looking for new technology to warn air traffic controllers when planes and other vehicles are on a collision course on runways.

“The FAA has called on the industry to help identify technologies that could augment existing surface surveillance device capabilities and deploy this technology at all airports with air traffic control services,” the agency said.

Later this month, the FAA will hold a workshop on risk mitigation at America’s 200 busiest commercial airports.

“There is no question that aviation is amazingly safe, but vigilance can never take the day off,” Billy Nolen, acting administrator of the FAA, said in a statement. “We have to ask ourselves difficult and sometimes uncomfortable questions, even when we are convinced that the system is intact.”

Buttigieg says “some sort of rust” could play a role in the recent incidents

Buttigieg said aviation interests need to identify “a very concrete diagnosis and concrete action steps” to reduce the number of near misses.

“It would be one thing if we found a certain piece of technology in the cockpit or a certain control tower where there would be a lot of problems,” Buttigieg told CNN. “But instead we find that pilots, ground crew and air traffic controllers alike seem to be enjoying this resurgence. Some have described it as a type of rust.”

“We’re not going to wait for something worse to happen to act now,” he told CNN, adding that the effort should result in “ensuring we can save lives at airports across the country.”

In a remark opening the summit, which was attended by safety investigators, industry officials, union leaders and others, the transport minister said the gathering “is about the whole system, which means it’s about all of us”.

Buttigieg said Wednesday’s summit was the first in a series of coordinated events the FAA will conduct to determine what is working well and what “new steps” need to be taken to ensure safety.

Air travel has a strong safety record and is the safest form of travel, Buttigieg said, but “we dare not take that record for granted.”

The chair of the National Transportation Safety Board told summit attendees that the safety agency had made seven recommendations on runway collisions that have not yet been implemented.

“One is 23 years old and still able to warn pilots of an imminent collision,” said Chair Jennifer Homendy.

“How many times do we have to make the same recommendations over and over again?” she asked.

Homendy said she’s already found a common problem with the six runway raids she’s investigating. In each case, the cockpit voice recorder, known as one of the black boxes, was overwritten, preventing investigators from hearing what was going on on the flight deck.

“All federal agencies that are here today have to ask themselves: Are we doing everything we can to make our skies safer? That’s the question we asked ourselves at the NTSB,” she said.

Nick Calio, President and CEO of Airlines for America, the trade association for major airlines, said at the summit, “There’s always a constant self-evaluation going on.”

Calio said airlines are reviewing their data to find ways to make aviation safer to avoid runway attacks, which the NTSB is investigating.

“I don’t want to speculate much about what happened there because they’re all under investigation. And we’re all trying to figure out what’s going on. Is this trending? Is that a pattern?” he said.

Rich Santa, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said a possible culprit was the lack of staff in air traffic control towers.

“Unfortunately, as air traffic controllers, we currently have a staffing problem. We are 1,200 fewer certified professional controllers today than 10 years ago,” he said at the summit. “It is time for us to accurately and appropriately staff the facilities.”

Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen said at the summit the agency “continues to hire” and is on track to hire 1,500 air traffic controllers this year and another 1,800 next year.

The NTSB is investigating the series of runway assaults involving commercial aircraft. The near misses on US runways have also prompted federal safety investigators to launch a full investigation.

A Southwest passenger jet and a FedEx cargo plane arrived last month 100 feet from a collision at an Austin, Texas airport, and it was a pilot — not an air traffic controller — who, according to Homendy, averted disaster.

There was one in January alarmingly short similar to this latest. A Delta Air Lines flight was taking off from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport when air traffic controllers “noticed that another aircraft was crossing the runway in front of the departing jet,” the FAA said in a statement.

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Sarah Y. Kim

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