FAA increases mid-air collision warning reviews for commercial flights

Neither the Federal Aviation Administration nor the airlines believe there are imminent risks to passengers, and they have not issued emergency orders or imposed other changes to carrier operations. On the contrary, safety experts said they fear potential collision risks could increase as traffic continues to rebound from the Covid-19 pandemic.

In-flight close calls requiring airline pilots to perform last-second evasive maneuvers have been largely eliminated by advances in technology over the years. Since last summer, however, some FAA and airline officials have been concerned that cases of commercial aircraft flying dangerously close to other planes have increased in 2021 from pre-pandemic levels. of 2019 near some airports, according to documents and officials familiar with them.

Senior regulators, seasoned airline executives and pilot union leaders held a series of discussions and conducted new studies on the issue over the summer until the end of last year. , as documents summarizing some of these meetings show.

The documents identified escalating in-flight risk in 2021 near Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport and Hollywood Burbank Airport in Southern California. The documents, which were not previously reported, named other “airports of interest” requiring further analysis. They include John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, Miami International Airport, and Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu.

Earlier this year, another industry document identified the Dallas area as one of those showing a trend of increasing mid-air collision warnings.

Flight safety is the responsibility of the FAA, and airport operators have not participated in FAA-industry groups assessing in-flight risk. Representatives from those airports did not comment or note the FAA’s regulatory role.

Denver International Airport, according to separate FAA documents and safety updates, is of particular concern to government and industry officials. For more than a decade, safety officials have tried to reduce the potential collision risks that are most acute during landing approaches on certain runways. The FAA, which has been working on safety improvements in Denver for years, recently launched another safety review there, an FAA spokesperson said.

An airport spokeswoman said Denver officials are monitoring progress toward a potential solution.

Some senior flight safety officials said the increase in mid-air collision warnings may be partly explained by pilots, air traffic controllers and other aviation professionals struggling with the widespread shutdown of activity in 2020 as the pandemic ensued, followed by an intense recovery.

The FAA, working with officials from various aviation groups, asked airlines last summer to consider monitoring several issues with mid-air collision warnings. Joint FAA-industry groups have stepped up efforts to analyze and counter the trend, according to industry documents and officials involved.

The FAA spokesperson said the data the agency collects through voluntary reporting programs has been effective in identifying mid-air collision threats and other hazards.

Meanwhile, data collected by the National Transportation Safety Board through a mandatory reporting system shows an increase in mid-air collision warnings near several major hubs. Data from the NTSB, which tracks incidents differently from the FAA, indicates that collision warnings increased around several busy airports last year compared to pre-pandemic traffic in 2019.

At Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, for example, reports of such incidents rose from three to 11 during this period. They also fell to four to one at Los Angeles International Airport and 15 to 11 at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Florida, according to NTSB data, which includes airliners, large planes cargo and other commercial operators. Representatives for Newark, Los Angeles and Fort Lauderdale had no comment.

The number of warnings captured by the NTSB is miniscule compared to the roughly 6.2 million domestic plane flights last year tracked by the Federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics, but they represent some of the most serious potential risks in aviation. Every incident tracked by the NTSB involved what the board’s reporting criteria classified as requiring pilot action in response to “a substantial risk of collision.”

The last mid-air accident in the United States involving a major passenger aircraft occurred approximately 36 years ago, before advances in cockpit technology, over Cerritos, California, and resulted in the death of more than 80 people. National passenger airlines have suffered no fatal accidents in 13 years.

The full meaning of the NTSB data and industry documents seen by The Wall Street Journal is unclear. NTSB data is not reliable enough to make definitive risk assessments around specific airports because airlines do not flag close calls leading to collision avoidance warnings, a spokesperson said.

The safety committee, which investigates transportation accidents but has no regulatory authority, reviews every report it receives to track potential safety issues and seeks to determine the seriousness of events, the spokesman said. NTSB.

Over the past few months, joint FAA and industry safety teams have looked at some of the same airports where NTSB data shows warnings have increased, according to people familiar with the matter.

At the heart of safety reviews by regulators are traffic alert and collision avoidance systems, on board airliners and other types of aircraft, which alert pilots to potential in-flight hazards. . The equipment has significantly reduced mid-air collisions over the decades. Known as TCAS, the systems initially provide pilots with automated warnings about nearby air traffic.

If planes continue to converge, TCAS becomes an aviator’s ultimate lifeline by issuing more urgent automated voice commands to descend or climb — technically called resolution advisories — that pilots are typically required to follow. These advisories are followed by both the NTSB and the FAA.

Flight deck crews are expected to react within seconds and, at most, usually have about half a minute to take emergency action to avert an air disaster.

Denver International, which has described itself as the third-busiest U.S. airport, illustrates the difficult technical challenges of tackling in-flight risk.

According to government, industry and independent safety experts, the elevation and layout of the mile-high airport can confuse TCAS software, resulting in more frequent warnings requiring pilots to circle for another landing attempt.

Many airlines and the FAA describe these warnings as “nuisance alerts.”

To avoid longer flights and increase runway capacity, many pilots approaching certain Denver strips are allowed to turn off the TCAS collision avoidance feature. This is allowed under strict conditions, such as when planes approach runways in broad daylight and with heightened surveillance by air traffic controllers, according to pilots and flight safety officials.

Responding to persistent industry efforts to expand day-to-day operations, the FAA has blessed the practice for years. Most US carriers, including Southwest Airlines Co., United Airlines Holdings Inc. and Delta Air Lines Inc., have adopted it.

These airlines said safety is not compromised if pilots turn off warnings during final approaches for certain flights landing in Denver. Some veteran regulators, aviators and air traffic control officials said the warnings were never meant to be turned off under normal flight conditions.

The FAA spokesperson said reducing nuisance warnings can promote safety near airports by eliminating distractions during landings. Pilots may choose to turn off warnings during certain approaches to Denver because the airport’s altitude and runway configurations generate advisories for flight paths with “low to no risk of collision”, it said. he declares.

American Airlines Group Inc. said it does not allow warnings to be turned off in Denver. “We don’t want to take away that level of protection,” said John DeLeeuw, a US safety official who previously headed the carrier‘s pilots’ union safety committee.

This story was published from a news agency feed with no text edits

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