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Near-collision at Austin airport: Air-Traffic Controller and Southwest pilots faulted

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  • The near-collision at Austin airport was due to an air-traffic controller's error and faulty assumptions by Southwest pilots.
  • The NTSB has recommended enhanced ground movement detection technology and frequent position reporting by pilots in low visibility.
  • The incident underscores the need for improved training and technology to prevent future runway incursions.

In February 2023, a near-catastrophic incident at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport highlighted critical safety concerns in aviation. A FedEx cargo plane and a Southwest Airlines jet came perilously close to colliding on the runway, an event that has since been attributed to errors by both the air-traffic controller and the Southwest pilots. This incident underscores the urgent need for improved training and technology to ensure passenger safety.

On a foggy morning, the FedEx Boeing 767 was cleared to land on Runway 18 Left, while the Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 was simultaneously cleared for takeoff on the same runway. The dense fog severely limited visibility, complicating the situation further. The FedEx crew, realizing the imminent danger, called for the Southwest crew to abort their takeoff. The FedEx pilots then aborted their landing, narrowly avoiding a collision that could have resulted in the loss of 133 lives.

Faulty Assumptions and Human Error

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation revealed that the air-traffic controller, Damian Campbell, made a critical error by assuming the Southwest jet would take off before the FedEx plane landed. Campbell's "inaccurate mental model" and reliance on auditory cues due to poor visibility contributed to the near-miss. He later admitted to investigators that he "couldn't see anything" on the ground through the fog.

NTSB Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy emphasized the human element in the incident, stating, "It is an error. We're all human." She highlighted the need for advanced technology to support air-traffic controllers and pilots, especially in adverse weather conditions.

Recommendations for Safety Improvements

In response to the incident, the NTSB issued several recommendations aimed at preventing similar occurrences in the future:

Enhanced Ground Movement Detection Technology: The NTSB urged the installation of technology at all commercial airports to detect the movement of planes and vehicles on the ground. Currently, this technology is only available at a few dozen airports.

Frequent Position Reporting: The NTSB recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) mandate pilots to report their position frequently when taxiing in limited visibility conditions.

Improved Weather Office Conditions: The NTSB highlighted the inadequate conditions of the weather office at Austin airport, which lacks internet access, cell phone service, and a functional FAA-issued computer.

Broader Implications

The Austin incident is part of a troubling trend of "runway incursions" in 2023, with at least seven incidents classified as level A or B. The FAA has responded with additional controller training and a national safety summit to address these issues. However, the Austin near-collision remains one of the closest calls in recent years, serving as a stark reminder of the potential consequences of human error and the need for robust safety measures.

The near-collision at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport was a wake-up call for the aviation industry. It highlighted the critical role of air-traffic controllers and pilots in ensuring passenger safety and the importance of advanced technology and rigorous training. As the NTSB continues to push for improvements, the hope is that such incidents will become a thing of the past, ensuring safer skies for all.

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