Lee Moak is a former Delta Air Lines Boeing 767 pilot and a past president of the Air Line Pilots Association.
- On Dec. 18, a United Airlines Boeing 777, just seconds into takeoff from the island of Maui, climbed to around 2,220 feet before entering a steep dive and coming within 775 feet of the Pacific Ocean.
- On Jan. 11, the nation’s airspace came to a standstill for more than two hours after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued the first nationwide ground stop since Sept. 11, 2001, because its method for communicating alerts to pilots, known as NOTAMs, failed.
- On Jan. 13, a Delta Air Lines Boeing 737 aborted its takeoff run after an American Airlines Boeing 777 crossed its path from an adjacent taxiway at New York’s Kennedy International Airport.
- On Jan. 26, the tails of two different Alaska Airlines Boeing 737s struck the ground on takeoff due to weight and balance miscalculations only six minutes apart while departing Seattle.
- On Feb. 4, a FedEx Boeing 767 on final approach into Austin came close to colliding with a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 that had been cleared to takeoff on the same runway.
Normally, the FAA, the National Transportation Safety Board, the pilot and controller unions, and the airlines do not comment on ongoing safety investigations. The accepted process is to wait for any single investigation to be concluded, issue a report on all the factors that contributed to the incident, and then comment on what might be done differently in the future.
The recent string of incidents, however, is different. The number, nature and potential tragedy of the results involved are unacceptable and concerning. We cannot wait for our aging and understaffed aviation infrastructure to break, and a tragedy to occur, to demand action.
The FAA plans to hold a special event on Wednesday that will bring together a group of aviation safety leaders and government regulators. It’s what’s known as a Safety Call to Action; it’s focus is on the recent incidents, and the goal is to discuss what went wrong, what worked and what needs to be modified going forward.
But many people in the commercial aviation sector know what has pushed things close to the breaking point: the airlines, regulators, pilots and flight crews, controllers, and safety experts have just come through a massive transformation during the pandemic. After slowing down to unprecedented levels, with tens of thousands of employees furloughed, commercial aviation is now quickly ramping up operations as air travel demand increases faster than most expected. The industry is racing to meet the training requirements required to bring furloughed employees back and certify its new employees on the flight deck, at airline operations and maintenance facilities, and at FAA air traffic control centers and towers.
Safety leadership has been fluid at best. The FAA has been without a permanent administrator for almost a year. The FAA office in charge of aviation safety has had an acting head for a year, as the person previously in that role, Billy Nolen, became acting FAA administrator. Furthermore, Congress has underfunded the FAA for decades, leaving the safety regulator to make do without the technology, tools and staffing needed to upgrade aging systems, physical and digital infrastructure, and keep pace with new technologies.
There is no doubt that each of these aviation entities, in government and industry, always prioritizes safety first and foremost. But talking and acting are not the same.
And the seemingly random incidents of the past three months suggest that the safety systems, which served the nation well enough before and during the pandemic, might not be sufficiently robust for normal operations in 2023 and beyond.
Industry, government and unions must work together to determine how often each of these types of safety incidents happened and where resources are needed to prevent them in the future. Airlines, controllers and pilots need to work closely with government, sharing data, proposing solutions and then executing to enhance aviation safety for all. We cannot assume our commercial aviation system can just pick up where it left off in 2020.
The FAA needs a confirmed administrator. Congress needs to pass an FAA reauthorization bill that prioritizes and funds improvements for the Air Traffic Organization, adds certification resources and makes other identified upgrades to ensure the NOTAM failure never happens again. And lawmakers must hold the FAA accountable for delivering on the safety mandates issued by Congress.
Accidents often occur when accepted best practices are not rigorously applied and followed. They are sometimes averted only at the last moment. But we cannot rely on luck and quick thinking to keep our skies safe.
We are at a critical waypoint in aviation safety. The old ways of doing business are not working. We must reapply ourselves to ensure that these incidents are avoided altogether. All parties must act now and plot a new course to a safer future.