Aviation experts weigh in on recent near-miss incidents on airport runways

“It is important to acknowledge that over the past two years, we’ve had a transformation in the air transportation industry," Hassan Shahidi, president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation, said

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On Aug. 11 at San Diego International Airport, a Cessna business jet that was landing came dangerously close to crashing into a Southwest Airlines flight that was waiting for takeoff.

On May 19 at San Francisco International Airport, a Southwest Airlines jet was taxiing across runways where two other planes, a United Airlines jet and an Alaska Airlines jet, were told to land. Both of them aborted their landing because of the Southwest plane.

On Feb. 4 at Texas’ Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, a Southwest Airlines plane was cleared for takeoff using the same runway a FedEx cargo plane was expected to land on moments later.

On Jan. 13 at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, a Delta Air Lines plane that was getting ready for takeoff came to an abrupt stop when air traffic control noticed an American Airlines plane crossing in front of the Delta plane’s path.

Federal authorities said they were investigating a near collision between a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 and a Cessna Citation business jet at San Diego International Airport.

These are among more than a half-dozen close calls being investigated by the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board in recent months.

The incident that took place in August at SAN — referred to as a “runway incursion,” meaning when a plane or vehicle is on the runway when it shouldn’t be — happened just before noon. The FAA said in a statement it is investigating the "go-around" and said it is not yet clear how close the two planes came. That will be determined in their review.

What the experts have to say

NBC 7 spoke with two experts about why these incidents are occurring more frequently and if airline passengers should be concerned when they step on a plane.

“This year started out and it had an uptick, and when you sort of normalize the data I said, ‘OK, well it should come down,’ and it did. But this year we’ve had more events than normal, and so we need to look systemically as well,” John Cox, an aviation expert and retired pilot, said.

Cox has spent decades investigating plane crashes and is now the president and chief executive officer of Safety Operating Systems LLC. He told NBC 7 that the close calls are likely due to a variety of factors, including staffing.

“I do think the staffing at FAA and the air traffic control facilities needs to be upped and that includes the trainers,” Cox said. “The controllers, they’re very highly-qualified professionals, but they’re being pushed.”

Hassan Shahidi also shared his insight with NBC 7. Shahidi is the president and chief executive officer of the Flight Safety Foundation, an international organization that advocates to enhance air travel safety.

“Many of these incidents that have occurred involve a number of factors including communications between pilots and air traffic controllers, including standard operating procedures, training and awareness," Shahidi said.

Shahidi added that while the lack of air travel during the COVID-19 pandemic probably does not directly relate to issues being experienced now, the industry has shifted significantly since 2020.

“It is important to acknowledge that over the past two years we’ve had a transformation in the air transportation industry," Shahidi said. "We now have thousands and thousands of new employees, pilots and air traffic controllers.”

However, both Cox and Shahidi both emphasized that despite these recent incidents, which they consider rare, air travel in the U.S. is extremely safe.

“There are multiple layers in aviation safety that we have developed over the decades, and that’s how we have gotten as safe as we have,” Cox said. “We recognize commercial aviation today as the safest form of transportation ever designed by humankind.”

In response to a string of incidents, the FAA issued a safety call to action in February. As part of the effort, there will be runway safety meetings at roughly 90 airports across the country to mitigate runway close calls.

SAN is not on the list. The only airport listed in San Diego County is Gillespie Field, which has a history of tragic crashes.

The meetings are expected to happen sometime between now and the end of September.

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