Fearmongering or Wake Up Call?

Fearmongering or Wake Up Call?

In late August, The New York Times published an exposé called “Airline Close Calls Happen Far More Often Than Previously Known” by Sydney Ember and Emily Steel. The story purports that near-catastrophic events in commercial aviation are increasing. The article says the Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) (also known to many in the aviation industry as the NASA reporting system because for many years that program has been overseen and monitored by NASA) has reports that indicate these events have more than doubled over the past decade.

Does the NYT article get it right? Or are they fearmongering? Perhaps we are just privy to more information than in years past, creating a sense that these events are increasing? The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was quick to respond, saying in a statement, “The U.S. aviation system is the safest in the world, but one close call is one too many. The FAA and the aviation community are pursuing a goal of zero serious close calls, a commitment from the Safety Summit in March. The same approach virtually eliminated the risk of fatalities aboard U.S. commercial airlines. Since 2009, U.S. carriers have transported more than the world’s population with no fatal crashes.”

Additionally, the FAA noted that data shows runway incursions are steadily decreasing and released a statement saying the FAA will hold runway safety meetings at approximately 90 airports between now and the end of September. “Sharing information is critical to improving safety,” said Tim Arel, chief operating officer of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization. “These meetings, along with other efforts, will help us achieve our goal of zero close calls.”

Whether or not the NYT or the FAA is more correct, one thing is certain. The flying public puts their trust in the air transportation system and deserves the safest possible system within the constraints of human frailty.

To gain more clarity on this report and our commercial aviation safety record, I spoke to aviation safety expert Jeff Guzzetti. Guzzetti is a 40-year aviation safety industry veteran having held leadership positions within the FAA, the NTSB, the Office of The Inspector General – Aviation and now as head of GuARD (Guzzetti Aviation Risk Discovery) and analyst for multiple news outlets.

I asked Guzzetti if these near-catastrophic events are truly increasing. “No,” Guzzetti said emphatically. “The article even says so, by quoting FAA statistics that, after a rise in 2013, the number has gone down since 2018 to now. … Also, runway incursions are classified as A, B, C, and D, with A being the ‘near-catastrophic’ ones, B being concerning and C and D being very minor. Most Class A events involve single-engine Cessnas and Pipers, not airliners. Class A events involving airliners have not increased.”

I asked him if the NYT article get some things right and he agreed that “their facts are correct, but their cherry-picked NASA ASRS narratives and quotes from disgruntled ATC controllers do not provide a balanced or nuanced description of the current situation.” In many cases, we are privy to more information than years past, creating a sense that these events are increasing.

The article’s authors say the ATM system is “a safety net under mounting stress.” But Guzzetti stated that he thinks the aviation safety net is constantly under varying levels and types of stress and that this is nothing new. “For example, using satellite-based navigation and glass cockpits has significantly lessened the stress on the safety net over the years (compared to ADF approaches with steam gauges), but new challenges like increasing air travel, a temporary shortage of controllers and a pilot shortage have replaced that stress to some degree.”

Next, I asked Guzzetti about staffing levels in the air traffic control system. He pointed to a Department of Transportation Office of the Inspector General report, “FAA Faces Controller Staffing Challenges as Air Traffic Operations Return to Pre-Pandemic Levels at Critical Facilities” that says, “The FAA has made limited efforts to ensure adequate controller staffing at critical air traffic control facilities. The agency also has yet to implement a standardized scheduling tool to optimize controller scheduling practices at these facilities, and FAA officials disagree on how to account for trainees when determining staffing numbers. As a result, the FAA continues to face staffing challenges and lacks a plan to address them, which in turn poses a risk to the continuity of air traffic operations.”

The NYT article says current and former ATC controllers said, “close calls were happening so frequently that they feared it was only a matter of time until a deadly crash occurred.” But this is purely anecdotal and Guzzetti points to the lack of hard evidence in the statement. “I don’t believe it. This statement is truly fearmongering! Did every controller they talked to say this? I doubt it,” Guzzetti said.

The article also says ASRS reports have more than doubled. But Guzzetti questions what facts the authors based this statement on. “Are they referring to all NASA reports? Or just ones from airline pilots who report near misses? Pilots notoriously over-exaggerate these types of occurrences because it is hard to accurately perceive distances and flight dynamics. The rule of thumb at the NTSB for comparing DFDR data with pilot comments was a three-to-one ratio (i.e., “we were in a 90-degree bank!” when the DFDR indicated 35 degrees),” he said.

When asked what else needs visibility in aviation safety, Guzzetti pointed to several areas including the lack of a permanent, strong, qualified FAA administrator, causing a decrease in morale, support and stability of the FAA workforce; FAA employee brain-drain due to retirements and a lack of adequate respect and incentives to recruit the next generation of inspectors and engineers; lack of an adequate budget to fund new technology; and the significant mechanic shortage.

Guzzetti had more to say, and his full comments will be included in the online content on our website and you can see them here. He will also be presenting at our Aerospace Tech Week Americas event in Atlanta on November 14-15.