FAA issues safety recommendations as safety-critical incidents get more attention

The Federal Aviation Administration released a Safety Alert for Operators Wednesday – essentially a memo to airlines and other aviation industry stakeholders that the agency has its eye on recent high-profile safety incidents, and that recommends ways to avoid catastrophe as travel demand continues to spike.

"In recent months, a number of notable and high visibility events have occurred in the National Airspace System (NAS). While the overall numbers do not reflect an increase in incidents and occurrences, the potential severity of these events is concerning," the document said. "Six serious runway incursions have occurred since January 2023, including an incident at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City involving a taxiing aircraft narrowly avoiding a departing aircraft and a landing aircraft coming within 100 feet of a departing aircraft at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Texas."

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The FAA held a safety summit in Washington last week in response to the high-profile incidents. The session began with a public forum and continued with closed-door workshops that brought together professionals from across the industry.

"As a safety professional, if you are comfortable, it probably means you’re missing something," acting FAA administrator Billy Nolen said during the public session. "There’s no question that aviation is amazingly safe, but vigilance can never take a day off."

The Federal Aviation Administration has issued safety recommendations as safety-critical incidents have gotten more attention.
The Federal Aviation Administration has issued safety recommendations as safety-critical incidents have gotten more attention.

The FAA's latest safety recommendations

The purpose of last week's safety summit was to chart a path forward for the aviation industry, and Wednesday's safety alert was the next step on that course.

The recommendations generated by the industry last week include the following:

  • Ensure pilots and flight attendants have the same understanding of what “sterile flight deck” means and the risks associated with extraneous communication during this time.

  • Emphasize the importance of awareness of the aircraft in relation to taxiways, runways and other aircraft, including urging employees to review previously issued relevant safety alerts.

  • Encourage personnel to identify and report existing and emerging safety issues through voluntary reporting programs and understand the usefulness of voluntary reporting systems for the operation in which you are engaged.

  • Reinforce adherence to published processes and procedures, including checklists, Air Traffic Control instructions, and internal company procedures.

  • Ensure Safety Management Systems are accounting for the high rate of change and churn in the industry.

Air Traffic Controller next steps

Staffing was a key area of discussion during the public portion of the safety summit, especially among air traffic controllers. Representatives from across the industry emphasized that there has been a high rate of turnover among pilots, air traffic controllers and other safety-critical aviation professionals and that it takes time for new hires to get trained and become proficient.

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"Unfortunately, we have a staffing issue right now as air traffic controllers," Rich Santa, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) said at the forum. He added that the agency was prepared to deliver a new staffing model that should help smooth over some of the issues.

"We deliver that and we can deliver all of the resiliency all of the redundancy and all of the safety and margins that industry deserves," Santa said.

On Thursday, the FAA's Air Traffic Organization came out with its own action plan to address gaps in air traffic control coverage, which have contributed to some of the recent safety issues as well as flight delays and cancellations.

These are the steps Tim Arel, ATO's chief operating officer, said his section of the FAA will take:

  • Ensure that supervisors devote their full attention to the operation and airfield during peak traffic periods at each facility. This comprehensive view ensures controller communication and actions are coordinated to provide safe and efficient services.

  • Provide more dedicated training for unusual circumstances and update simulator software last updated in 2016.

  • Work with NATCA to reinforce existing safety protocols, especially those that help increase situational awareness.

  • Continue reducing our training backlog from the pandemic. We must train at every opportunity and find ways to improve training programs to account for the number of new hires and promotions.

  • Re-examine runway incursion data to identify underlying factors that led to these close calls and identify remedies.

Zach Wichter is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in New York. You can reach him at zwichter@usatoday.com

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: FAA safety recommendations aim to reduce dangerous flying incidents