FAA calls for a safety summit to be held after aircraft ‘uptrend’

WASHINGTON– After a series of close discussions with commercial flights, leading airlines will meet on Wednesday to discuss the incidents and work to identify patterns and factors that are fueling risks to the industry.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced the safety summit last month as part of a review of the country’s aerospace system examining the structure, culture, systems and integration of safety efforts.

“We are witnessing the safest time in aviation history, but we cannot take this for granted,” said FAA Acting Administrator Billy Nolen. “Recent events are a reminder that we must not become complacent. Now is the time to stare at the data and ask hard questions.”

The summit will include remarks from Nolen, as well as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Jennifer Homendy, Chair of the National Transportation Safety Board. The event will also include a panel moderated by Nolen and former NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt, while attendees will include various union and lobby officials.

Nolen will ask attendees what they see in their own operations and ask for specific ideas on how to improve the country’s safety net through specific actions.

In an interview, Buttigieg said he had seen an “uptick” in close contacts with aircraft in recent weeks. “This year we’re on track to have more than 20 — and even one is one I wouldn’t like to see,” he told ABC News Transportation correspondent Gio Benitez.

Buttigieg said he was “very concerned” about these incidents but stressed the overall safety of the national aviation system.

“We must ensure that our national aviation system is continuously improved and constantly observed,” Buttigieg said. “Air travel didn’t become the safest way to travel on its own. America’s transportation system has had to learn from decades of accidents.”

The data shows that although the total number of incidents is increasing, the more serious incidents have decreased over the past two decades.

Buttigieg told ABC News that aviation’s recovery from the lows seen during the COVID-19 pandemic is “putting a strain on the system” and increased demand for air travel could also be contributing to recent shortages.

When asked if experience among aviation workers was to blame, Buttigieg deflected, saying, “It’s not just experience in general.”

“We’re still talking about people,” he said. “And while again these cases are extremely rare, we’re not going to let any of them happen without taking a very close and focused look at how it happened, why it happened and what steps could be taken to prevent it.”

Buttigieg wrote to attendees at the security summit on Tuesday, saying he expects to accomplish three things: identifying “patterns and risk factors,” identifying how the different parts of the aviation system “counter all risks,” and identifying and implementing “additional steps.” to reduce these risks.

“It is our responsibility to carefully consider all factors and determine what steps are needed to strengthen a safety culture and strengthen safety practices, especially in the face of significant disruption and change in the aviation sector as a result of a global pandemic,” Buttigieg wrote.

The FAA and NTSB are investigating a number of incidents

The FAA and NTSB are currently investigating six commercial plane near misses in recent months — five at airports and one over the Pacific Ocean.

In December, United Flight 1722 en route to San Francisco suffered a sudden loss of altitude over the Pacific Ocean, officials said. Shortly after taking off from Maui, the Boeing 777 sank to just 775 feet above water in less than 20 seconds. The aircraft was then able to regain altitude and continue to its final destination. There were no injuries.

On Jan. 13, an American Airlines plane crossed a runway at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City without air traffic control clearance, causing a Delta Air Lines plane to abort its takeoff from that runway, according to the NTSB. The closest point between the two planes was about 1,400 feet, according to a preliminary agency report.

Also in January, a United Airlines 384 crossed a runway at Honolulu Airport without air traffic control clearance. A Cessna landed on the same runway at the time. According to the FAA, the Cessna came to a halt about 1,170 feet from the United flight. There were no injuries or damage to the aircraft.

On Feb. 4, a FedEx plane landing at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Texas came within 100 feet of a Southwest Airlines jet taking off from the same runway, the FAA said. Both aircraft received air traffic control clearance to use this runway.

And in February, officials said, there were two more close encounters — one of which occurred at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport in Florida, after an air traffic controller cleared an American Airlines flight to land on the same runway as an Air Canada plane Rouge was released stand out from. The American aircraft initiated a go-around itself and the two aircraft were approximately 3,100 feet apart.

The other incident happened at Boston’s Logan International Airport after a Learjet took off without air traffic control clearance as a JetBlue flight prepared to land on an intersecting runway.

ABC News’ Clara McMichael and Sam Sweeney contributed to this report.

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