Mar 1, 2023 - Economy

The FAA is investigating more alarming airplane near-disasters

An aircraft departs from Boston Logan International Airport on August 9, 2005.

An aircraft departs from Boston Logan International Airport on August 9, 2005. Photo: Mark Garfinkel/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images

Aviation officials are investigating two more alarming recent near-misses two weeks after the Federal Aviation Administration announced a "safety call to action" following several other concerning incidents.

Driving the news: In the most recent incident, a business jet took off without clearance at Boston Logan International Airport on Monday, forcing an incoming JetBlue flight to go around.

  • Per air traffic control recordings, the business jet was told to “line up and wait” on one runway, while the JetBlue flight was approaching an intersecting runway.
  • That's not a takeoff clearance — but the smaller jet started its takeoff roll anyway, putting it in the path of the inbound JetBlue flight.
  • The JetBlue pilots aborted their landing, went around and landed about 10 minutes later. (In a go-around, pilots add power, climb back up and set up for another landing attempt.)

The intrigue: Logan, which has a particularly complicated runway layout, was the site of a 2005 near-miss that was about 70 feet from potentially becoming one of the worst commercial air disasters in U.S. aviation history.

In a separate incident at California's Hollywood Burbank Airport on Feb. 22, a Mesa Airlines regional jet went around after a SkyWest flight was cleared for takeoff as the Mesa aircraft was only about a mile from the runway.

  • The SkyWest aircraft took off while the Mesa flight went around. The two aircraft were alarmingly close to one another for at least several seconds, per radar data.
  • Air traffic control audio recordings suggest the controller struggled to immediately separate the aircraft. The Mesa pilots received and complied with an alert from their aircraft's collision avoidance system.
  • That system, called TCAS (Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System), can automatically detect nearby planes and tell pilots how to avoid a collision.
  • If two planes with the latest TCAS tech are dangerously close to one another, their respective TCAS units can sync up — for instance, the pilots of one plane will be told to climb, and those of the other to descend.

By the numbers: The number of annual runway incursions has been trending largely downward over the last two decades, but has risen in more recent years:

Severe runway incursions at U.S. airports
Data: Federal Aviation Administration;.Chart: Erin Davis/Axios Visuals

Reality check: Go-arounds happen all the time, and pilots are trained extensively to perform them.

  • Some of these incidents are making headlines at least in part because of recent heightened media interest in aviation safety.
  • Pilots, not air traffic controllers, hold the ultimate responsibility for the safety of any given flight — and in both of these cases, at least one pilot saw a problem developing and successfully avoided it.

Yes, but: At the same time, pilots and controllers are meant to work together. When either is off their game, it can have disastrous consequences.

The bottom line: It'll take time for investigations into these and other recent incidents to play out and reveal any contributing factors.

  • That said, they're already valuable learning experiences for pilots and controllers alike.
  • As we wrote earlier, it's a mistake to think we're necessarily "due" for some kind of air disaster — but these incidents need to be taken seriously.
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