FAA holds safety summit after aircraft ‘uptrend’

After a series of close discussions with commercial flights, aviation leaders met on Wednesday to discuss the incidents and work to identify patterns and factors that are fueling risks to the industry.

At the safety summit in Washington in recent weeks, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and Acting Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration Billy Nolen acknowledged an “uptrend” in tight missions.

“Initial information indicates that more errors than usual are occurring throughout the system on runways, at gates when aircraft back up, in control towers and on flight decks,” Buttigieg said in a remark at the event.

The FAA announced the summit last month as part of a review of the nation’s aerospace system that examined the structure, culture, systems and integration of security efforts.

Rich Santa, chairman of the national air traffic controllers union, said Wednesday there is a “staffing problem” among the air traffic controller workforce and there are 1,200 fewer certified professional air traffic controllers than there were 10 years ago.

“If you have fewer eyes, fewer open positions, that requires a reduction in efficiency to combat the security risks introduced,” Santa said.

ABC News is aware that there have been at least six close talks with commercial flights in recent months. Before the summit, Buttigieg said in an interview with ABC News Transportation correspondent Gio Benitez that officials are on track to record “more than 20” close encounters with planes this year.

Nolen called such incidents “concerning” on Wednesday.

“There is no question that aviation is amazingly safe, but vigilance can never take a day off,” he said.

Still, officials have stressed the safety of the country’s aviation system – citing the 45,000 flights taking off per day and the fact that there has not been a fatal commercial plane crash since 2009. (There was a recent fatal aviation incident when a passenger on a Southwest flight died after an engine failure in 2018.)

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

National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy said Wednesday, while these statistics are true, “the absence of a fatality or accident does not imply the presence of safety.”

Homendy also highlighted the volume of her agency’s safety recommendations that have not been implemented by regulators.

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

Buttigieg told ABC News before Sunday that aviation’s rebound from lows 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.

Aviation leaders stressed the point at Wednesday’s summit

“The industry is recovering from the pandemic, during which a number of people … either retired or were laid off,” Homendy said. “There is a new workforce coming in that needs proper and appropriate training. Some who have fallen out during the pandemic will also need to be retrained.”

When asked in an ABC News interview whether experience among aviation workers was to blame, Buttigieg shoved it off, saying, “It’s not just experience in general.”

“We’re still talking about people,” he told ABC News. “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, United Airlines 384 flew over a runway at Honolulu International 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 contributed to this report.

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