46 Commercial Airline 'Close Calls' in July Alone; Meanwhile Biden Fails to Nominate FAA Chief

AP Photo/Steven Senne

If you’re scared to fly, you might want to skip this article.

To wit, The New York Times reviewed preliminary safety reports from the Federal Aviation Administration and found that commercial airlines have been involved in a terrifying number of “close calls” in recent months—with 46 almost-disasters in July alone. 

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Close calls occur multiple times a week:

On the afternoon of July 2, a Southwest Airlines pilot had to abort a landing at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. A Delta Air Lines 737 was preparing to take off on the same runway. The sudden maneuver avoided a possible collision by seconds.

Nine days later, in San Francisco, an American Airlines jet was accelerating down the runway at more than 160 miles per hour when it narrowly missed a Frontier Airlines plane whose nose had almost jutted into its path. Moments later, the same thing happened as a German airliner was taking off. In both cases, the planes came so close to hitting the Frontier aircraft that the Federal Aviation Administration, in internal records reviewed by The New York Times, described the encounters as “skin to skin.”

And two and a half weeks after that, an American flight to Dallas was traveling at more than 500 m.p.h. when a collision warning blared in the cockpit. An air traffic controller had mistakenly directed a United Airlines plane to fly dangerously close. The American pilot had to abruptly yank the Airbus A321 up 700 feet.
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Meanwhile, the FAA is still without a permanent administrator because President Biden has failed to name a suitable nominee. Current acting Administrator Polly Trottenberg—who's also Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigeg’s No. 2—must step down in October because of rules specifying that an unconfirmed chief can only serve 210 days.

Biden had previously nominated former CEO of LA Metro Phil Washington, but he had to withdraw his name in March after he proved stunningly lacking in aviation knowledge and was also tied to a corruption scandal

The lack of a nominee leaves a void:

Leadership at the agency has taken on fresh urgency because of questions about the upswing in near-misses earlier this year, which prompted [Former Acting Administrator Billy] Nolen to convene a safety summit in March. The most recent incident occurred Aug. 11 in San Diego, when a business jet overflew a Southwest Airlines plane by just 100 feet, according to NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy. Controllers had cleared both planes to use the same runway, the FAA said.

But what’s causing all the near misses? Understaffing and burnout:

Industry workers have blamed a shortage of air traffic controllers which has forced many in the profession to work mandatory overtime. The demands of the job have left some burned out and even using alcohol and sleeping pills to relieve stress.

A shocking 99 percent of air traffic control facilities in the US are understaffed, according to the New York Times, which found 310 out of 313 do not have enough workers. 
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The Times blames the situation partly on former President Ronald Reagan because he fired thousands of striking air traffic controllersback in 1981. Perhaps Joe Biden’s much more recent COVID vaccine mandates played a large part:

The roots of the current staffing shortage date to the early 1980s, when the Reagan administration replaced thousands of controllers who were on strike. Since then, there have been waves of departures as controllers become eligible for retirement. The F.A.A. has struggled to keep pace.

During the pandemic, many controllers left, and the F.A.A. slowed the pace of training new ones because of health restrictions. The staffing shortage became a crisis. [Emphasis mine.]

It's also unclear why the trillion-dollar infrastructure bill Biden signed in 2021 hasn't adequately addressed this problem.

Whatever the cause, the current situation is downright scary:

“The staffing shortage is beyond unsustainable. It has now moved into a phase of JUST PLAIN DANGEROUS,” one controller wrote to the F.A.A. last year in a confidential safety report that The Times reviewed.

“Controllers are making mistakes left and right. Fatigue is extreme,” the report continued. “The margin for safety has eroded tenfold. Morale is rock bottom. I catch myself taking risks and shortcuts I normally would never take.”

The controller concluded, “It is only a matter of time before something catastrophic happens.”
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Although this close call happened in 2017, you can see how terrifying such an event can be:

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