“What the heck is going on out there?”

That was the only question that really needed to be asked at the ad-hoc FAA Aviation Safety Summit last week in the Washington, DC area.

The question was delivered by Robert L. Sumwalt, Executive Director of the Center for Aviation and Aerospace Safety at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and former Chair of the National Transportation Safety Board. Sumwalt co-chaired the public panel with Billy Nolen, FRAeS, Acting Administrator of the US Federal Aviation Administration.

The FAA summit was convened in the shadow of several ‘near-miss’ runway incursion incidents at US airports, an unprecedented NOTAMS system failure, some disturbing unruly passenger events, and assorted aircraft mechanical failures.

More than 200 aviation industry representatives gathered to share their comments on the possible causes of the apparent spike in national airspace system issues, including A4A, AEA, ALPA, AOPA, EAA, FSANA, GAMA, HAI, ICAS, NAFI, NATA, NASAO, NATCA, NBAA, and RAA.

“We are particularly concerned because we have seen an uptick in serious close calls that we must address together,” remarked Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “Initial information suggests that more mistakes than usual are happening across the system: on runways, at gates when planes are pushing back, in control towers, and on flight decks. So today is about the entire system.”

He warned: “We can't wait for the next catastrophic event to seek the warning signs of today, fully determine the contributing factors, and swiftly address them.”

“So today,” he continued, “and in the weeks to come, we ask you to help us address a number of questions: What is showing in the data and what is missing in the data? What are the root causes of the incidents that we’ve seen? What's working well that we need to remember and continue, maintain, and reinforce; and at the same time what are the new steps that need to be taken? What roles and responsibilities do we each have in making needed changes? As our aviation system evolves, are our current systems adequate for the most important part of the aviation system, which is our people? And what needs to be adapted or enhanced? And beyond aviation, can we learn from other high-stakes industries whose workforces have also gone through dramatic changes during the pandemic?”

Unfortunately, in the public panel and in the closed-door, no-media breakout sessions which followed, the summit was not seeking solutions from the gathered experts. Presumably those will come in follow-up forums, such as an Aviation Safety InfoShare meeting at the end of the month and a CAST (Commercial Aviation Safety Team) meeting on 6 April, plus the new FAA Safety Review Team, revealed by Nolen in February, which will look at the airspace system's structure, culture, systems, and integration of safety efforts.

Regional Airline Association CEO Faye Malarkey Black also suggested participation in other data-sharing programs, including “the World Aviation Training Symposium… places where we can come together to talk about the pressing issues.” (WATS (wats-event.com)

Indeed, training was perhaps the most oft-mentioned word at the FAA summit, other than the word safety.


Here’s What’s Going On

Here are seven harrowing near-misses on US runways so far this year, the most recent first, plus other concerning issues that are getting the attention of the FAA and the flying public.

March: Reagan Washington National Airport

A Republic Airways flight crossed a runway without clearance, blocking the path of a United Airlines flight that had been cleared to takeoff. A controller canceled the UA flight’s takeoff clearance after noticing the situation. The Republic pilot reportedly had been cleared to cross a different runway but turned on the wrong taxiway.

27 February: Logan International Airport, Boston

A private charter jet nearly collided with a JetBlue plane after the private jet took off without clearance, after being told to wait; the JetBlue aircraft was preparing to land on an intersecting runway and had to take “evasive action.”

22 February: Hollywood Burbank Airport

A Mesa Airlines flight “executed a pilot-initiated go-around” as a SkyWest Airlines flight was taking off from the same runway.

16 February: Sarasota Bradenton International Airport

An Air Canada flight was cleared to takeoff from the same runway that an American Airlines flight was authorized to land on. The AA flight discontinued its landing when the planes were about 3,100 feet apart, in response to a notification from air traffic control.

4 February: Austin-Bergstrom International Airport

A FedEx cargo plane nearly landed on a runway as a Southwest Airlines flight was preparing to takeoff. The FedEx pilot halted his landing and initiated a climb-out, circled and landed several minutes later.

23 January: Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, Honolulu

A near collision when a United Airlines flight improperly crossed a runway as a cargo plane was attempting to land. The two planes came within about 1,100 feet of each other. The cargo plane was able to exit the runway early.

13 January: John F. Kennedy International Airport

A Delta Air Lines flight was forced to abort its takeoff as an American Airlines flight crossed the same runway. Air traffic controllers scrambled to alert both flights, which eventually halted about 1,400 feet from one another. According to a preliminary report from NTSB, the AA flight crossed the runway without prior clearance from ATC.

The three American Airlines pilots involved, under advice of the Allied Pilots Association, initially refused to testify in the NTSB investigation, claiming recording of their statements was out of the ordinary. The NTSB responded it has a long practice of recording “some interviews” and that it is important to this case because the cockpit voice recording during the incident was taped over when the crew took off for London. After the NTSB issued a subpoena, the pilots agreed to be interviewed.

18 December: United Triple7 Dive in Hawaii

Shortly after takeoff, a United Airlines 777 plunged toward the Pacific Ocean for 21 seconds, losing half its altitude, and came within about 775 feet of sea level.

11 January: NOTAM system failure

A contractor working for the FAA unintentionally deleted files related to the Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system, leading to a nationwide ground stop - the first nationwide halt of air traffic in more than 20 years; more than 11,000 flights were delayed and at least 1,300 were canceled.

6 March: DFW to PHX, Passenger Fight

A fight broke out on a Southwest Airlines flight from Dallas to Phoenix with one man holding another in a headlock. One man allegedly bumped into the other’s wife.

5 March: LAX to BOS, Flight Attendant stabbed

A Massachusetts man allegedly attempted to open the aircraft door during a United Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Boston, and jabbed a flight attendant three times with a broken spoon. Other passengers wrestled the man to the floor.


The FAA Aviation Safety Summit public panel: (left to right): Capt Jason Ambrosi, ALPA; Nick Calio, A4A; Todd Hauptli, AAAE, Robert L. Sumwalt, ERAU; Billy Nolen, FAA; Rich Santa, NATCA; Ed Bolen, NBAA; Faye Malarkey Black, RAA.

Credit: FAA


So What Are the Causes?

Billy Nolen told the summit audience, which included live-streaming online, “This is not an academic exercise. There have been far too man close calls and near-collisions recently, any of which could have had devastating consequences.”

The all-star panel offered a litany of reasons for the air system’s ills. Sumwalt likened the situation to “the human body having a fever, signaling something’s not right.”

“So many new people, so much training” was a primary cause, according to Capt Jason Ambrosi, President of the Air Line Pilots’ Association, International (ALPA) and a Delta pilot. “In my opinion, the airlines brought flying back too fast.” He cited not only the retirements of experienced pilots but also “displaced pilots” and “new people flying with each other,” and the complications of “getting people back in the seats where we need them.”

“Every time we switch seats, it’s a lengthy process,” Amrbosi added. “It takes a long time to train a pilot… for a reason.”

“And it’s not just new pilots, it’s new everybody: controllers, flight attendants, ground-handling people.”

Rich Santa, President of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), blamed “staffing and funding delays” for some of the ATC issues. “The way we get new equipment is archaic. It takes years and years and years. The stop-and-go funding of our industry prevents us from getting it out in a timely manner when it’s not obsolete before we get it in place.”

Santa said there are 1,200 fewer controllers than 10 years ago, “which demands a reduction in efficiency. It’s time to adequately staff the facilities.” To which Nolen responded the FAA is “on the cusp of delivering a new staffing model.” He promised 1,500 new controller positions this year and another 1,800 next year.

The RAA’s Black echoed the training / re-training requirement, noting that half of the US pilot workforce is tracking to mandatory retirement in the next 15 years. “The pace of change has accelerated,” she said, and emphasized, “It is important that we focus on building the right foundation from the start.”

“I’m not going to get into qualification and some of the touchy issues that can be polarizing here,” she prefaced, but nonetheless noted “the fallacy of relying solely on flight hours as a proxy for experience because that’s not serving us well today.”

Todd Hauptli, President and CEO of the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE), said 90% of pre-pandemic airport teams are still in place, but there’s been a lot of personnel churn in tenants and contractors. “The challenge is to get everybody up to speed. It’s impossible to over-train in this environment. People who exited for a time need muscle memory to kick in.”

The airlines “have more people than pre-pandemic,” said Nick Calio, President and CEO of Airlines for America (A4A). “They’re looking at the proficiency requirements of each and every job.”

National Business Aviation Association President and CEO, Ed Bolen, noted the NOTAMs debacle. “We lost the system for a couple of hours, but the impact was significant. He warned that the aviation industry is “vulnerable to complacency” and emphasized “compliance means compliance.”

Bolen also urged the industry to bring new safety technologies to market such as enhanced vision system HUDs and autoland.

Bolen and Ambrosi both cautioned about 5G telecom transmissions near airports. Ambrosi called 5G “a distraction,” adding, “pilots are dealing with am I going to be able to shoot this approach at this airport?”


Recommendations Ignored?

Prior to the panel, NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy wasted no politess in noting the board “has issued 7 recommendations on runway incursions that have not been acted upon… one is 23 years old.” She noted there are 1,500 to 1,700 runway incursions annually, though the majority are low or no risk.”

She said, “Sometimes we get the response that it costs too much,” and asked the audience, “What about your loved ones – do they deserve a price tag?”

Her strongest recommendation was that CVRs be upgraded to record 25 hours of cockpit voice, instead of the current 2 hours of audio. In the recent incursions, like the JFK incident in January, all of the relevant timeframe recordings were overwritten and therefore unavailable to investigators.

“Europe has mandated 25 hours for new aircraft for over a year,” she pointed out, and is also retrofitting some in-service aircraft. “Why is this so controversial?” she asked.

Homendy also took aim at turbulence, the most common Part 121 incident and especially dangerous to flight attendants. She added that children under 2 years old should be in a child restraint in their own seat.

Post-panel, the FAA and industry leaders co-hosted four breakout sessions with a “what happens in Vegas” shroud of secrecy. Media was barred, and participants not allowed to discuss the discussions. Rather, the FAA issued a “readout” of generic bullet points from each breakout.

In the Commercial Operations session, “pilots and flight attendants expressed concerns that they continue to feel stress in the workplace, including long work hours under adverse conditions.” The CAST team will be urged to “set a new goal of eliminating serious incidents such as runway incursions and close calls.”

In the Air Traffic System room, the FAA asked industry “to help identify technologies that could augment existing capabilities of surface surveillance equipment.”

Airport and Ground Operations addressed workforce experience and attrition, as well as best practices of training programs among airport tenants and other airport stakeholders. They also focused on implementing Safety Management Systems (SMS) at more than 200 commercial airports. During the public panel, AAAE’s Hauptli had said many airports have already installed SMS on a voluntary basis. The FAA announced a new SMS rule for Part 139 airports on 16 February and will hold an Industry Day information session 30 March.

In the General Aviation Operations breakout, the group explored the sharing of GA flight data in the Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing (ASIAS) database, which draws on multiple data sources such as ASRS (Aviation Safety Reporting System), FOQA (Flight Operational Quality Assurance), METAR (Meteorological Aviation Report), NMAC (Near Mid-Air Collisions), TFMS (Traffic Flow Management System), and several others.

The General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) issued a press release which referenced several comments from the GA ops breakout. Tim LeBaron, NTSB Director of the Office of Aviation Safety, suggested better collaboration between engine manufacturers, the FAA and NTSB on data gathering of loss of engine power investigations. Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association SVP of the Air Safety Institute, Richard McSpadden, urged evaluation of the adverse effects of the post-Covid “experience and knowledge drain.” Simplified pathways to incorporating safety-enhancing technology in the cockpit was a concern of Sean Elliott, VP Government Affairs for the Experimental Aircraft Association. 

James Viola, Helicopter Association International President/CEO, and Greg Pecoraro, CEO, National Association of State Aviation Officials, both referenced the FAA’s weather camera program, which has been targeted for budget cuts.

International Council of Air Shows President/CEO John Cudahy and Keith DeBerry, National Transportation Association COO, mentioned SMS for Parts 135, 91, 147 and 21.


What’s Next?

Throughout the publicly available summit remarks, there was a common refrain, as Bolen phrased it, “We’re the largest, the safest, the most efficient, the most diverse air transportation system in the world.

Indeed, since 2010, the US system has been near-flawless with regard to commercial airline fatalities. Ambrosi: “Safest point in history.”

Calio: “Best system in the world.” Yet he added, “We need to bring a sense of urgency. We can’t rely on the past for the future.”

But as the NTSB’s Homendy cautioned, “The absence of a fatality doesn’t mean the presence of safety.”

Nolen noted, though, the US airspace is “already the most complex in the world, and is about to become more congested” with new evTOL / AAM aircraft types, drones, and commercial space launches and re-entries.

Notably, there were no members of the US Senate or House of Representatives in visible attendance, or at least none recognized from the podium. Yet, Congressional funding for the FAA loomed over much of the discussion about technology modernization in the cockpits and ATC towers, funding for the pilot and mechanic pipelines, loss of service to small and mid-size cities.

Santa: “We need the tools, we need the technology, and we need the funding.”

Ambrosi: “We need proper funding, long-term leadership, and to start tackling those projects. This piecemeal funding from Congress where you pay for a little bit and then another year we’ve got to try to get a little more… there needs to be a vision beyond… this is where we’re going for 10 years from now, and let’s decide today we’re going to do it.”

Time will tell whether the summit was, as one observer termed it, “a well-scripted, feel-good event for the general public,” or the start of serious analysis and action.