The skies have been turbulent over the United States in 2023 – and not just because of rogue balloons.
Since the start of the year, there have been a concerning number of high-profile “near misses” as planes involved in airport landing or taking off procedures came perilously close to potential disaster.
And then there’s the turbulence. As all flyers know, bumpy air is a regular feature of plane travel, but not usually, as has been experienced recently, to the violent extent that passengers are hurt.
Plus, details emerged of an incident late last year, in which a United Airlines Boeing 777 plunged toward the Pacific Ocean for 21 seconds just after takeoff, apparently pulling up just 800 feet over the Pacific Ocean as passengers screamed in fear.
The litany of incidents that have clocked up less than three months into 2023 have prompted such concern that this week the US Federal Aviation Administration convened a “Safety Summit.”
Of course, flying remains an incredibly safe way to travel. Commercial plane crashes are nowadays very rare, with approximately 45,000 flights typically completed each day in the US, all without fatality. That’s a number that continues to rise, post Covid.
So, given that the FAA has assembled aviation experts – and US Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg – to take a closer look at what’s going on in the US, should passengers be worried?
While officials, still investigating these incidents, and airlines say flyers can continue to board planes with the confidence that the industry’s rigorous safety procedures will keep them out of harm’s way, some say recent events are a warning sign of potential trouble to come.
“These recent incidents must serve as a wake-up call for every single one of us, before something more catastrophic occurs. Before lives are lost,” National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy said to government and industry leaders gathered for the summit on Wednesday.
A string of scary near misses
On paper, it has not been a great year, thanks mainly to the series of headline-making “runway incursions” – essentially near misses between aircraft that made headlines and prompted serious questions about aviation risks.
On January 13, an American Airlines jet crossed a runway at New York’s JFK International Airport as a Delta Air Lines aircraft was taking off.
Ten days later, a United Airlines jet crossed a runway at Honolulu’s Daniel K. Inouye International Airport as a cargo aircraft was coming in to land. At their closest, says the FAA, the two were 1,170 feet apart.
February saw a rash of incidents. At California’s Burbank Airport, a Mesa Airlines plane had to make a go-around – essentially an aborted landing – when its crew realized a SkyWest plane was taking off from the same runway. Another go-around incident occurred at Sarasota Bradenton International Airport in Florida.
Perhaps closest to disaster was an incident on February 4, when FedEx cargo pilots were landing at Austin, only to see a Southwest plane was on the runway, about to take off.
Air Traffic Control had cleared both planes, despite the airport being wreathed in fog. The aircraft came within 100 feet of each other.
In late February, air traffic controllers at Boston averted a crash when a Learjet took off without clearance as a Jetblue flight was coming in to land on an intersecting runway. The JetBlue aircraft “took evasive action and initiated a climb-out,” according to an FAA statement.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which looks into incidents, is now investigating all six events. It is also investigating a December incident, in which a United Airlines Boeing 777 jet departing from Hawaii plunged towards the ocean after takeoff, coming within 775 feet of sea level.
The FAA, which is also investigating the recent spate of incidents, says it has not found a common cause.
It seems like stories like this are becoming increasingly common. Or are they?
Most incursions are not serious
Data from the FAA published in 2017 showed that reports of runway incursions have been on a largely upward trend since 1997, and steadily rising since 2011. The Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST), formed in 1997, encouraged a culture of data sharing and no-blame safety reporting.
The number of accidents has remained relatively constant, according to FAA analysis through 2016, and it shows the cumulative risk trending down.
The FAA says most incursions are not classed as serious – few of the 120 or so logged in January 2023 have made headlines. That figure includes all incursions, including those involving general aviation aircraft.
Some, however, can sound terrifying.
These include an event on January 18, in which a Boeing 737 took off from Dallas Love Field without ATC authorization; fortunately no other traffic was involved. And another at Florida’s Treasure Coast International, when a fire truck entered the runway as a business jet was taking off.
The latter is deemed “category A” – the most serious of runway incursions, “in which a collision is narrowly avoided,” according to the FAA. And there’s been a recent uptick in those cases. Both 2022 and 2021 saw seven of them – up on three in 2019 and four in 2018, according to the FAA’s runway incursion database. However, there were 22 category A incidents in 2007, the sharpest peak in the past two decades.
Most of the incursions involving commercial airliners that have made headlines this year are not yet entered into the FAA database. The agency did not provide specifics about how those incidents will be categorized.
“The vast majority of runway incursions are not serious occurrences,” the FAA said in a statement. “However, reducing the risk of them occurring remains one of the FAA’s highest safety priorities and is a shared responsibility that encompasses pilots, air traffic controllers and airport vehicle drivers.”
While incident numbers might not be on a dramatically upward trajectory, they are causing alarm. In February, acting FAA administrator Billy Nolen sent a memo to the agency instructing staff to “stare into the data and ask hard questions.”
Nolen renewed that call at the summit on Wednesday.
Among the questions he posed for consideration by the assembled experts: “In light of these recent close calls and the attention being focused on even the most routine of go-arounds, are we emphasizing efficiency over safety? How much of what we see can be attributed to the sudden resurgence in demand following the pandemic?”
He said that over the past 25 years the industry has made “enormous strides” in its ability to scour data and identify risks before they manifest into serious incidents or accidents, but he called on members of the aviation industry to discuss “concrete steps” to make the system safer.
“America’s aviation safety net is strong, our goal, our obligation, is to sew those threads even tighter,” Nolen said.
System under pressure
It’s about time, say some who work in the aviation industry amid fear that cuts made during the pandemic, plus a lack of scrutiny, have compromised America’s long safety culture in aviation.
The United States’ last fatal accident was in 2009, when Colgan Air flight 3407 crashed while flying from Newark to Buffalo, killing everyone onboard.
The NTSB investigation declared it to be pilot error, citing pilot fatigue as a factor.
The FAA revised duty times for pilots as a result, cutting them to a maximum of 14 hours, down from 16, including eight hours of flying. Minimum rest times rose from eight to 10 hours.
Cargo pilots can work slightly longer hours, despite sharing the runways with commercial pilots.
And whereas previously airlines have stayed well within them, some are now asking pilots to work closer to the maximums.
Dennis Tajer, an American Airlines captain and spokesperson for the Allied Pilots Association (APA), which represents 15,000 AA pilots, says that, since the pandemic started, the pressure on pilots is at an all-time high. The union is in ongoing negotiations with the airline.
“We’ve seen the system under pressure for well over a year, it was just a question of time before it was going to manifest itself in incidents,” he says.
“Thankfully there’ve been no accidents – yet.”
Pilot fatigue and shortages
Tajer cites a shortage of pilots caused by Covid lockdown layoffs as part of the problem. Last May, United CEO Scott Kirby said that there “simply aren’t enough pilots.”
A February 2023 analysis by management consultancy Oliver Wyman estimated a “supply gap” of 18% of the US pilot workforce.
As a result, airlines have increased pilot hours – to within legal levels allowed by the FAA, but surpassing pre-pandemic schedules, says Tajer.
“We are exhausted. Fatigue doesn’t happen in a moment – it can be chronic and that can affect your next flight. It’s like running an engine at its maximum all the time. At first it looks good, but over time things start to crack and leak. That’s what we’re seeing now.”
At the same time, he says, airlines are cutting back on training. In 2020, AA switched from retraining pilots every nine months, as it had done previously, to every 12 months – the FAA minimum standard.
AA said any changes were in line with FAA rules and followed a thorough risk assessment. “Safety is the foundation of every decision we make at American, and is the north star of our Flight Training program,” it said in a statement to CNN.
“We have the best, most expertly trained pilots in the business who are unwavering in their mission of operating a safe airline for our customers and fellow team members.”
Staffing – of positions including pilots, air traffic controllers and ground crew – was frequently cited as a pressure point among industry leaders at the summit. As was the importance of adequate training for both those who are new and those who are returning after absences brought on by the pandemic. The loss of experienced workers was also a key concern.
“With about half of our nation’s qualified pilots facing their mandatory retirement within 15 years, we are going to be training and hiring tens of thousands of new pilots over the next two decades,” said Faye Malarkey Black, president and CEO of the Regional Airline Association.
“And it is extremely, extremely important when we’re doing this that we focus on building the right foundation from the start.”
Nicholas Calio, president and CEO of trade group Airlines for America, said US carriers have hired 100,000 new workers with a strong emphasis on training.
‘A job that requires colossal concentration’
Terry Tozer, a British former airline pilot and author who now comments on safety, sees systematic issues with US aviation protocols.
“America is a very aviation-orientated country,” he says. “[Airports] pack a lot of traffic in… and if you put everyone under pressure, a cock-up [mistake] is more likely.”
In particular, “the American air traffic control system is very pressurized,” he says, pointing out that in the UK and the European Union, air traffic control workers get longer downtime.
“Covid seems to have exacerbated the situation – there’s an issue with staffing levels, and that usually adds pressure on the people at the coalface. It’s a job that requires colossal concentration.”
FAA regulations state that air traffic controllers can work no more than 10 hours a day (including two hours overtime), and get regular breaks.
Last summer, Airlines for America claimed the East Coast network was “crippled” due to lack of ATC staff.
“Unfortunately, we have a staffing issue right now as air traffic controllers. We are 1,200 certified professional controllers less now than we were 10 years ago,” Rich Santa, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said at the summit.
Nolen said the FAA is on pace to hire 1,500 controllers this year and 1,800 next year.
Tozer says that when he flew to the US, he’d feel “very uncomfortable” because of the way ATC in America clears aircraft to land when there will often still be a plane on the runway, about to take off. “In the UK and most of Europe, you won’t get a landing clearance from ATC until the runway ahead is clear. [In the US] they work on the assumption [pilots] will do as they’re told once they’re cleared to take off.”
A spokesperson for the FAA told CNN that it continually evaluates procedures and that “line-up-and-wait procedures” were safeguarded either by technology or strict rules on visibility.
They said “extensive safety data” enables spot risks to be identified and issues resolved before accidents occur
As both pilots point out, the good news is that all we’ve seen so far are incidents, not accidents.
“So you could argue that the system works,” says Tozer. “But the safety margins have been eroded a little.”
CNN’s Marnie Hunter, Ross Levitt, Pete Muntean and Gregory Wallace contributed to this report.