A close call on an Austin, Texas runway leads to a hearing in D.C.

In several weeks, the NTSB plans to publish its report on the Austin incident.
Air traffic control tower is in sight as a plane takes off from San Francisco International Airport.
Posted at 6:39 PM, Jun 06, 2024

A thick fog causing major visibility and communications issues almost caused a catastrophe in Austin, Texas last year.

The crisis was avoided due to the quick thinking of the FedEx co-pilot, who had to fly over the top of a Southwest jet carrying 128 passengers after both planes were cleared to use the same runway.

It was one of several close calls from 2023 that prompted the Federal Aviation Administration to call a "safety summit" for the industry and a meeting Thursday with the National Transportation Safety Board.

Investigators concluded that flight crews were qualified and not fatigued during the close call incident, but they recommend several changes.

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Those recommendations include airport surface detection equipment for controllers to help track movement of aircraft and vehicles, formalized training for controllers on low-visibility weather conditions like fog, 25-hour cockpit recorders, and better communications between pilots and controllers.

"If everything is normal, standard operating procedures work great. But, as we saw with the limited visibility, things can fall apart pretty quick — aircraft taxi slower, and, to be more precise, in their position on the taxiway and on the runway. So good communication with the controller is imperative," said Warren Abrams, investigator and former airline captain, at the hearing.

FAA officials have stated that U.S. aviation "has never been safer," but other experts have said the safety margin is shrinking and needs to improve with better staffing and technology.

According to the FAA's numbers, there were 23 of the most critically categorized runway incursions in 2023. In 2022, there were 16. So far this year, there have been 7.

One close call happened last month at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. —just weeks after another close call in the same airport.

In several weeks, the NTSB plans to publish its report on the Austin incident.