A U.S. government watchdog agency will audit the FAA’s efforts to prevent runway incursions following a string of close calls at some airports in recent months.
On July 6, the Transportation Department’s (DOT) Office of Inspector General (OIG) announced its intent to review the FAA’s methodology for data analysis, risk identification, and measures to mitigate runway incursions.
The audit comes as the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is investigating six incursion events since the beginning of the year. While the number of runway incursions has remained relatively stable, the industry has seen an increase in the most serious ones in which disaster was narrowly avoided.
In one such instance, a FedEx Boeing 767 and a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 came within 115 feet of each other in poor visibility conditions. The incident on February 4 at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (KAUS) could have ended in tragedy if not for the quick reaction of the FedEx pilots to conduct a go-around.
Several other near misses in Massachusetts, Florida, and New York have dominated media coverage, triggering public concern and scrutiny of the aviation industry as a whole. Ongoing events led then FAA acting administrator Billy Nolen to call for a March Safety Summit—the first since 2009.
“These recent incidents must serve as a wake-up call for every single one of us, before something more catastrophic occurs, before lives are lost,” NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said during the summit.
On May 23, the NTSB hosted a roundtable with aviation leaders, safety experts, and government officials to discuss the state of the runway incursion issues and possible solutions. Homendy noted a total of 365 runway incursions this year, including the six being investigated. She also mentioned that low staffing levels can have a significant impact on safety and called for more funding for the FAA.
As it stands, the agency is short about 3,000 air traffic controllers with plans to hire 1,500 this year and an additional 1,800 next year as it grapples with pandemic-related training backlogs. But a recent OIG audit of the agency contends the FAA has made a limited effort to ensure adequate staffing.
In the report, it was disclosed that 77 percent of critical air traffic facilities were staffed below the agency’s 85 percent threshold. The audit also revealed several facilities required mandatory overtime and six-day workweeks to cover staff shortages. Additionally, it highlighted that of the FAA’s 13,300 controllers, 26 percent are trainees.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg admitted it would take years for the FAA to be comfortable with its controller staffing: “I think it’ll be a while before we’re at levels we’d like to see.”
According to a Reuters report, the FAA said it welcomes the scrutiny and looks forward to sharing its progress with OIG.