Despite a series of narrowly avoided accidents at U.S. airports in recent months, FAA data shows the most serious close calls have declined over the last 20 years.
According to the agency, serious close calls involve situations where a collision was “narrowly avoided” or in which there is “significant potential for a collision.” In 2022, there were 18 serious runway incursions in the U.S.—up from a low of five reported in 2010 but down from a high of 32 reported in 2007.
And while serious runway incursions have decreased, overall incidents are up—as defined by the FAA as any occurrence at an airport in which an aircraft, vehicle, or person is incorrectly on the protected areas designed for takeoff and landing. Last year, 2022, showed at least 1,633 runway incursions including general aviation and commercial aircraft—up from the 1,372 reported a decade prior.
The news may be surprising as aviation mishaps have dominated headlines in recent months and put pressure on lawmakers and the FAA to take action. On February 14, FAA Acting Administrator Billy Nolen issued a safety call to action detailing a new safety review team to “examine the national airspace system’s structure, culture, processes, systems, and integration of safety efforts.” Nolen also announced the FAA would hold a safety summit next month with industry stakeholders to help mitigate issues and prioritize actions.
During his testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee earlier this month, Nolan was pressed on one incident in Austin, Texas, in which a FedEx cargo airplane narrowly avoided a Southwest Airlines flight where both had been cleared to use the same runway. “It is not what we would expect to have happened, but when we think about how we train both our controllers and our pilots, the system works as it is designed to avert what you say could have been a horrific outcome,” he said.
Meanwhile, the NTSB continues to investigate the growing number of instances— including seven occurrences involving U.S. airlines since mid-December.
While the events are cause for concern, the U.S. is still experiencing the safest period in aviation history. Data shows the FAA’s air traffic organization handles more than 45,000 flights and 2.9 million airline passengers per day. In fact, the last fatal accident involving a commercial aircraft in the U.S. was the 2009 Colgan Air crash, while the last death on a commercial aircraft occurred on a Southwest Airlines flight in 2018.