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 quoted Guzzetti in my ednote but space did not allow for all of his input to be included in the print issue. Here are all of Guzzetti’s complete answers to my questions:
1. Are these near-catastrophic events increasing?
No. The article even says so, by quoting FAA statistics that, after a rise in 2013, the number has gone done since 2018 to now. And what is “catastrophic” anyway? What timeframe is being selected for the “increase.”
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. Also, most Class A events involve single-engine Cessna and Pipers, not airliners. Class A events involving airliners have not increased.
2. Does the NYT article get anything right?
They get most of it right, but the article seems to promote an erroneous impression of “the sky is falling.” 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.
3. Are they fear mongering?
Yes. Not outrageously so, but yes. I don’t think they intended to “fear-monger,” but, to them — journalists who live outside of the day-to-day aviation operations — their research was “shocking” to them.
4. Are we just privy to more information than years past, creating a sense that these events are increasing?
Yes. The commercial aviation community is safer today because most airlines have adopted “non-punitive” self-reporting systems that has generated significantly more information about “near misses” or mistakes that could have led to accidents. You can’t fix what you don’t know is broken, which is why we are privy to more information. Additionally, for air traffic control issues, new technology has allowed better automatic reporting, and the FAA has developed and promoted a non-punitive voluntary safety reporting program called “ATSAP” — Air Traffic Safety Action Program.
5. The article refers to “a safety net under mounting stress” — does that reference ring true?
I think it would be more accurate and appropriate to say that it is a “safety net under stress”…delete “mounting”. The aviation safety net is constantly under varying levels and types of “stress.” 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.
6. The article says “ASRS reports have more than doubled.” Is that accurate? What types of reports?
What does that mean? Are they referring to all NASA reports? Or just ones from airline pilots who report near misses? Regardless, I am not sure what has doubled, or why. But I do know that 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).
7. The NYT article has current and former ATC controllers saying that “close calls were happening so frequently that they feared it was only a matter of time until a deadly crash occurred.” Is this believable? Accurate?
I don’t believe it. This statement is truly fearmongering. Did every controller they talked to say this? I doubt it. And what does it mean to say “it is only a matter of time until a deadly crash occurs.”? Not to be glib, but It is “only a matter of time” before we all die.
8. What else needs visibility in aviation safety?
a. Lack of a permanent, strong, qualified FAA Administrator, causing a decrease in morale, support, and stability of the FAA workforce
b. FAA employee brain-drain due to retirements, and a lack of adequate respect and incentives to recruit the next generation of inspectors and engineers.
c. Lack of an adequate budget to fund new technology.
d. Significant mechanic shortage.
9. Do you agree with the article that there is a shortage of air traffic controllers? If so, why does that shortage exist?
Yes. I very much agree. The NYT got this right. The proof can be found in a recent audit report from the DOT Inspector General. Like all of their reports, the DOT IG report on air traffic controllers is accurate and non-biased. Here is a link to that report:
10. Does the “uptick” in events, if any, have anything to do with the influx of new, less experienced pilots?
Yes. To some degree, in my view. There does appear to be more improper flightcrew actions occurring, possibly due to inexperience and less competent pilots. But I don’t know exactly how much of a role that is playing. It’s anecdotal.
11. What safety equipment is needed on the ground and in airplanes?
I agree with the article’s critique about the FAA’s failure to implement Runway Safety Technologies (such as ASSC and ASDE-X). That equipment has been available for years, but FAA has dragged their feet on implementing it, because it is lost in a sea of crisis-of-the-day priorities.
Also, the development of “sense and avoid” and AI tech should be accelerated.
But I think that technology is only a part of the solution. It is the HUMAN element that needs to be nourished. For example, runway safety meetings (like the FAA recently announced) need to occur more frequently. The FAA should be allowed to “over hire” controllers so that there are trained and experienced controllers instantly ready to replace retired controllers. The initial and recurrent training of controllers should be enhanced. Safety management systems should be better implemented.
12. Are we simply due for a major airline accident?
No. We should not tolerate such an accident from occurring. One will occur eventually, but not because “we are due.” And hopefully not anytime soon.
I find it stunning that the last time we had a Part 121 major airline accident in the U.S., involving a large jet airplane, was American Airlines Flight 587 in New York…22 years ago. Then, there was the Part 121 small jet airplane accident in Lexington, Kentucky a few years later. We are talking about decades since the last large jet airline disaster. And in a nation with the densest and most populous air traffic in the world.
13. What about duty time for controllers? Is that an issue that might be contributing to aviation safety?
Many controllers earn well over $200,000 a year. Some can earn more if they subject themselves to volunteer overtime. Even the NYT article indicates that the controllers want this schedule. And the schedule was improved after the “sleeping controller” fiasco a few years back.
That said, I agree that the controller shortage is a stressor on the system, but there are standards in place to decrease the flow of traffic at the locations of the facilities.
14. FAA lacks a plan to hire controllers. What should they be doing?
Page 18 of the recent DOT OIG report that I mentioned earlier (see link above) provides some answers:
To improve FAA’s ability to ensure adequate staffing at its critical facilities, we recommend that the Federal Aviation Administrator:
1. Complete a comprehensive review of the model for distribution of certified professional controllers (CPC) for air traffic control facilities and update interim CPC staffing levels as necessary.
2. Implement a new labor distribution system that includes features such as timekeeping, overtime and Controller-in-Charge tracking, and real-time leave balances.
15. How do we stop the fraying?
Aviation safety is all about MANAGING RISKS. There will always be risks (i.e., fraying”) associated with flight. We will never be able to “stop” the risks if we continue to fly, but we can mitigate them to an “acceptable” level. I think the FAA is doing a good job of that.
16. Are there any other sources of information about this situation that interested parties should be looking at?
These DOT OIG reports: