Two planes nearly collided at Austin’s airport last year. An air traffic controller’s ‘error’ was to blame, NTSB chair says | CNN (2024)

Two planes nearly collided at Austin’s airport last year. An air traffic controller’s ‘error’ was to blame, NTSB chair says | CNN (1)

Near-miss as FedEx plane landing almost hits Southwest flight taking off in Texas

01:57 - Source: CNN


A FedEx cargo plane trying to land and a Southwest Airlines jet trying to take off nearly collided on an airport runway last year because of an air traffic controller’s faulty assumptions amid heavy fog, investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board said in a hearing Thursday.

“It is an error.We’re all human,” said NTSB chairwoman Jennifer Homendy.“That’s why you have technology to provide that extra layer of protection, not just in the tower but also in the co*ckpit of the airplane.”

The hearing concerned one of the country’s closest near-collisions in years as heavy fog enveloped Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in February 2023.

Air traffic controllers cleared the FedEx Boeing 767 to land on Runway 18 Left and had also approved the Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 jet to take off using the same runway, the NTSB said.

The National Transportation Safety Board logo and signage are seen at a news conference at NTSB headquarters in Washington, Dec. 18, 2017. Andrew Harnik/AP/File Related article ‘You couldn’t see anything:’ NTSB documents reveal new details on airliner near-collision

The FedEx crew realized they were about to land on top of the Southwest plane and called for the Southwest crew to abort the takeoff. The FedEx crew then aborted their landing – averting what could have been a mass disaster.

The incident came amid a sharp rise in “runway incursions” last year. The NTSB on Wednesday said that a near-collision between two planes at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York in January 2023 was caused by pilots who were repeatedly distracted in the co*ckpit.

The Federal Aviation Administration responded to the string of incidents with additional controller training and a rare national safety summit.There have been at least seven in that top category so far this year – classified in FAA nomenclature as level A or B.

Of the 23 near-collisions last year, Austin was the closest.

“This really could have ended up in catastrophe and the death of 133 people,” Homendy told CNN after the board meeting.

Air traffic controller had ‘inaccurate mental model’

The hearing on Thursday offered further details on the near-collision and recommendations for how to prevent such an incident going forward.

The air traffic controller who had cleared both flights, Damian Campbell, later told NTSB investigators that he “couldn’t see anything”onthe ground through the fog.

The NTSB’s new findings show that when the Southwest pilot radioed the tower, the controller “never determined the accurate position of the airplane” prior to clearingitstakeoff. His incorrect assumption was the Southwest plane could take off before an incoming FedEx jet landed on the same runway.

However, taxiing and takeoff take longer in poor weather, and the Southwest plane sat on the runway for 19 seconds performing a procedurethat isrequired under the weather conditions, the board said.

The board concludedthe controllerused an “inaccurate mental model” and was biased in his past experience of Southwest pilots promptly departing when he assumed the Southwest jet could make it in time.

Exterior view of JFK Airport in New York on November 19, 2023. (Photo by KENA BETANCUR / AFP) (Photo by KENA BETANCUR/AFP via Getty Images) Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images/File Related article Distracted pilots led to near collision on JFK runway, NTSB says

Ultimately, the FedEx plane was between 150 and 175 feet away from landing atop the Southwest plane before anyone spotted potential disaster. A FedEx pilot said in an NTSB interview he saw the silhouette of the Southwest wing appear through the clouds and quickly pulled away.

The weather in Austin that day was so foggy that the controller later told investigators he was listening for the Southwest plane’s engines to know whether it had taken off.After the FedEx pilot averted the collision, the controller issued instructions that suggested he believed the Southwest jet was still on the ground, a board member said.

“That is not indicative of a safe aviation system,” Homendy said. “That’s not safety.”

The NTSB issued seven recommendations Thursday based on the Austin incident, including installing technology at all commercial airports to detect movement of planes and vehicles on the ground.The technology is currently only in use at a few dozen airports.

The NTSB called on the FAA to require pilots to report their position frequently when taxiing in limited visibility conditions.

The board also revealed alarming conditions for the weather office at the Austin airport, although the members did not fault the observer on duty. The windowless weather office has no internet access and no cell phone service. And the office has an FAA-issued computer but no password to log on.

Two planes nearly collided at Austin’s airport last year. An air traffic controller’s ‘error’ was to blame, NTSB chair says | CNN (2024)
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