Aviation leaders meeting outside Washington to address recent near misses at the nation’s airports said Wednesday an influx of new workers during a rapid pandemic-era travel rebound has presented safety challenges.
“It’s not just new pilots. It’s new everybody: controllers, flight attendants, ground people,” Ambrosi said. “In this post-covid rapid recovery, there’s so much going on.”
Federal transportation officials and industry leaders emphasized during the safety summit that flying remains incredibly safe in the United States, a track record they often attribute to close coordination between airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration. They also acknowledged this year’s close calls — six in recent weeks at airports across the country — are a warning sign as the industry comes back from the pandemic and runways are busier.
“It is not an academic exercise,” acting FAA administrator Billy Nolen said. “Six near misses. We have taken these six near misses and treated them as if they happened.”
The industry’s growing pains have caused disruptions in the past 18 months as airlines tried to manage rising passenger demand. Last year, that largely resulted in canceled flights and delays as carriers juggled their resources.
Several panelists pointed to turnover in the aviation labor force during the pandemic as a potential safety risk, but they stopped short of assigning a cause to any of the recent incidents.
Many workers took leaves or early retirements as travelers stayed home in the early part of the pandemic. As a result, tens of thousands of new workers have been hired. That mix has cut into the overall experience level of workers charged with running the aviation system, panelists said.
“There are pressure points,” said Rich Santa, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “The industry has recovered faster than we thought, but we need to acknowledge that we have staffing and funding delays systemwide.”
Yet the precise reasons for the unusual cluster of incidents remain unclear. Nolen told attendees a flight instructor long ago had told him to “listen to the aircraft” — an approach he said the industry now needs to take.
“What is the system telling us?” Nolen said.
Nolen moderated a panel with former National Transportation Safety Board chairman Robert Sumwalt, who likened the recent incidents to a body suffering a fever. Subsequent meetings were held behind closed doors. Attendees said the discussions were structured and did not lead to concrete actions for the industry to take.
“Nothing has changed,” Ed Sicher, president of the Allied Pilots Association, a union at American Airlines, said after the meetings. “Absolutely nothing has changed.”
The FAA said after the session it called on the industry to help identify technological tools to improve runway safety that could be deployed “to all airports with air traffic control services,” stretching far beyond the dozens of airports where costly surveillance systems are in place.
The agency said aviation leaders discussed pursuing how to better share real-time safety information, including among front-line workers. And with pilots and flight attendants warning they faced long hours in stressful working conditions, the FAA said participants agreed that “human factors” should be considered when judging aviation risks.
NTSB Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy told attendees there had been “far too many” close calls that could have resulted in disaster.
“The absence of a fatality or an accident doesn’t mean the presence of safety,” she said.
Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III, who has been flying for more than a half-century, said in an interview Wednesday at the summit that the aviation industry is facing fundamental demographic shifts as it seeks to recover from pandemic disruptions.
“It’s this huge brain drain that’s happening in every airline, every air traffic control facility,” said Sullenberger, whose emergency river landing in 2009 became known as the Miracle on the Hudson.
With large numbers of retirements followed by a quicker-than-expected return to busy flight schedules, new pilots are being thrust into roles more quickly than normal, he said. Some major airlines are promoting pilots to become captains in less than a year, something that might have typically taken 20 years, Sullenberger said. He said understaffing across aviation is reducing checks and balances, increasing chances for error.
Nicholas E. Calio, president and CEO of industry trade group Airlines for America, told attendees that after hiring 100,000 new workers during the pandemic and its aftermath, “we worry about juniority.” But airlines have addressed concerns, he said, by emphasizing training and proficiency requirements, and by “putting people together with more experienced people, because experience does matter.”
Alan Kasher, Southwest Airlines’ senior vice president of air operations, said in an interview that after looking at internal safety data, it’s too soon to make a connection between the incidents that prompted Wednesday’s meeting and the type of demographic and pandemic-related ramp-up issues raised during the session.
“You can’t ignore that you’ve had X amount of events in a short period of time,” he said. “But we don’t have any data, and in talking with some of my peers, we’re not ready to make a connection on that.”
The summit was held at the Northern Virginia offices of Mitre, a nonprofit research group with close ties to the FAA. United Airlines and Delta Air Lines sent teams, and Southwest participated in three breakout sessions. American chief executive Robert Isom had said the carrier’s vice president of safety would attend.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the summit was a reflection of the aviation industry’s commitment to safety, adding, “We take nothing for granted.”
The six recent near misses include an incident at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in early February in which a FedEx cargo jet was cleared to land on a runway that a Southwest passenger plane was using to take off. Homendy said the planes came within 100 feet of each other.
On the eve of the summit, the FAA said Tuesday it was investigating after a Republic Airways regional jet crossed a runway at Reagan National Airport as a United flight was about to take off on March 7. The NTSB said it was monitoring that incident but hadn’t launched a formal probe.
It probably will take the NTSB more than a year to determine the causes of each close call. In the meantime, the FAA said it wanted to take action to protect its safety record. Nolen launched a review in mid-February, saying the agency would examine its own data and improve internal collaboration, in addition to holding the industry summit.
The summit is coming after the agency has been without a Senate-confirmed leader for almost a year. President Biden’s nominee, Denver International Airport chief executive Phil Washington, has faced questions about whether he has sufficient aviation experience, while congressional Republicans have argued he would require a special waiver to serve in the role because he is a military veteran.
Washington’s backers have tried to shore up his standing in recent days. John Putnam, the Transportation Department’s general counsel, wrote to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who leads his party on the committee weighing the nomination, to lay out legal arguments for why Washington has the necessary qualifications and does not need a waiver, which would expose him to a vote in the Republican-controlled House.
“Since his retirement from the military nearly 23 years ago, Mr. Washington has engaged in solely civilian pursuits and clearly fits the plain and widely understood meaning of the word ‘civilian,’” Putnam wrote.
In the past, Congress has voted on waivers even for retired military officers appointed to lead the FAA. Cruz’s team was quick to dismiss the administration’s position, saying its arguments were “so flimsy they’d make Lionel Hutz from ‘The Simpsons’ blush.”
Putnam said Washington, as leader of Denver International, and other airport representatives have a central role in runway safety, a priority given recent close calls. Successful aviation leadership does not require being a pilot, he argued, noting that just one of the CEOs from the 10 largest commercial airlines has such a background.
“If anything, the fresh perspective he will bring to his top-to-bottom assessment of the FAA’s culture and operations will be a benefit,” Putnam said.
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