NTSB says an air traffic controller's mistaken assumption led to a close call between planes in Texas

An air traffic controller's incorrect assumption that a Southwest Airlines jet would take off from a Texas airport before a landing FedEx plane reached the runway caused the planes to come within less than 200 feet of the airport. collide in dense fog Last year, federal investigators said Thursday.

The National Transportation Safety Board said Southwest pilots contributed to the close call in Austin on Feb. 4, 2023, by not telling the controller they needed time on the runway before beginning their takeoff roll.

The air traffic controller had given both planes permission to use the same runway. A potential disaster was averted at the last minute when FedEx pilots glimpsed the silhouette of the Southwest plane – with 128 passengers and crew on board – and climbed out of harm's way.

“This incident could have been catastrophic if not for the heroic actions of the FedEx crew,” NTSB said President Jennifer Homendy said during the hearing.

Board member Michael Graham called the incident a failure of aviation safety.

“We had two planes within 200 feet of each other, and that shouldn't have happened,” Graham said. He noted the lack of ground radar or technology at the airport to warn pilots of the potential for collisions, and said the air traffic controller and Southwest crew showed poor judgment and decision-making.

“If the FedEx crew hadn't made a last-minute relaunch, we might have had a different discussion today,” Graham said.

In a statement of probable cause that it unanimously adopted, the five-member board also criticized the Federal Aviation Administration for failing to require the Austin airport to have technology that would have helped air traffic controller Damian Campbell track the planes. He told investigators he could not see the Southwest plane as it taxied to the runway.

The board also said a lack of recent training by Austin controllers on operating in low visibility conditions contributed to the close call.

The FedEx plane was making its final approach to land at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport as it nearly reached the top of the summit. Southwestern Boeing 737that roared down the runway in dense fog for takeoff.

Campbell told investigators he expected the Southwest plane to do that take off faster. In retrospect, the controller said, he could have made the Southwest crew wait until the FedEx Boeing 767 landed.

NTSB investigators said traffic controllers in Austin had not recently trained for or worked in low-visibility conditions. “As a result,” said investigator Brian Soper, Campbell “was not adequately prepared to handle traffic that morning.”

Investigators pointed out that Austin airport did not have radar-based ground tracking technology – in use at 43 other US airports – that would have helped controllers track the planes. The FAA has announced plans to make GPS-based tracking technology available to more airports, including Austin.

Investigators also noted that the Southwest pilots were still 550 feet from the runway when they said they were ready for takeoff. When they reached the runway, they held on longer to get the engines going. The pilots should have told the controller they needed more time, said investigator Warren Abrams, a former airline captain.

FedEx copilot Robert Bradeen Jr. was in the audience on Thursday and received an ovation. FedEx Captain Hugo Carvajal III, who was not present at the hearing, previously told investigators that he was irritated and perplexed when he heard the controller clear the Southwest plane to take off from the same runway he was approaching.

The incident was one of several close calls last year that prompted the FAA to convene a “safety summit” of aviation industry participants.

FAA officials have maintained that U.S. aviation has never been so safe. However, a panel of independent experts concluded last year that the The safety margin becomes smaller and the FAA needs better staff and technology to manage the nation's airspace.

“As alarming as they are, events like (the one in Austin) are rare. Commercial aviation is by far our safest mode of transportation,” Homendy said. “But the bleak truth is that all it takes is one mistake that could lead to tragedy, destroy our excellent safety record and destroy public confidence in our aviation system.”

There were 23 of the most serious runway incursions – close calls involving one or more aircraft on the ground – last year, compared to 16 in 2022, according to FAA figures.

“We're going in the wrong direction,” said Homendy, a frequent critic of the FAA.

The FAA countered that the number of serious runway incidents is down 59% so far in 2024 compared to 2023. The agency said it has improved tracking technology at several airports, including Austin, where the tower now has a tool called 'approach runway verification'. and modernized simulators for training.

The FAA said it would review the NTSB's recommendations.

“Our top priority is the safety of the flying public,” the agency said, “and the FAA and the aviation community remain committed to the goal of zero serious close calls.”

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