Analysis: There have been multiple close calls on airport runways. An expert explains why

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There have been six close calls on US runways this year, which has led to a fair amount of news coverage, some alarm among the flying public and a lot of calls for answers – including from the acting head of the Federal Aviation Administration Billy Nolen, who testified on Capitol Hill this week.

Unable to explain the spike, Nolen told lawmakers the agency wants to get to the bottom of things at a safety summit planned for next week. There are also specific investigations into each incident in Boston; Burbank, California; Austin, Texas; Honolulu; New York; and Sarasota, Florida.

I talked to CNN’s Pete Muntean, who not only covers aviation but is also a pilot and flight instructor, for his perspective on what the heck is going on.

Our conversation, conducted by phone, is below. Stick with it for an interesting bonus story on how low-flying planes are used to find poachers in Africa.

WOLF: Six close calls in recent weeks. Are these all distinct events? Or should we view them as one larger issue?

MUNTEAN: There’s definitely a constant theme because they’re the same type of event, which is officially known as a runway incursion. It is where two airplanes essentially get in the way of one another on or near the runway.

These types of events can range from really minor to more egregious. What we saw at JFK in New York in January, that had to be one of the more egregious ones. The air traffic controller had to swoop in and stop a flight that was barreling down the runway toward a crossing, taxiing (Boeing) triple seven from taking off.

That is a more extreme, severe example. There have been some examples where the airplanes get within a few hundred feet of one another, maybe as close as 100 feet. One of the cases like in Austin.

But they’re not really caused, necessarily, by the same thing. That’s, of course, something that investigators will look at.

(On Wednesday) the acting head of the FAA on Capitol Hill said that if there are dots to connect, they’ll connect them in this safety summit next week, although it doesn’t seem like there was any real common trigger. No common cause.

RELATED: FAA to conduct sweeping safety review after multiple incidents

WOLF: Who is supposed to keep these from happening? Is it the air traffic controllers? Is it the pilots? How is it supposed to work?

MUNTEAN: There are multiple different layers of safeguards in place in the air traffic system, especially at these busy airports where there are a lot of airliners coming in and out in a lot of varying conditions, a lot of different times of day.

Some of the responsibility falls on air traffic control. Of course, it’s their job to keep airplanes from running into one another. Some of the responsibility falls on the flight crew to keep it so that they follow the instructions of air traffic control, that they remain vigilant all the time, if they’re taxiing across runways or taking off from a runway that’s crisscrossing with another one as they’re about to land.

The good news is that in commercial aviation in the US – which has a stellar track record, by the way – there are two trained pilots at all times. And there are a lot of eyeballs essentially making it so that these things don’t happen.

The pilots can intercede at any point, and in some cases they have. They’ve just essentially called their own go-arounds to make it so that they don’t come in contact with an airplane. In some cases, the air traffic controllers will call it. The onus is on a few different layers here.

I’m a pilot, but I just did a demonstration with a former NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) investigator at a busy airport, Dulles (in Virginia), and it begs pointing out that some of the safeguards are as simple as paint on the runway and taxiways to remind pilots not to taxi too close to the runway. Some of it is in the phraseology that’s used on the radio. Some of it is in the procedures and training the pilots get.

I think every pilot that’s out there now – and if you talk to professional pilots this is something that weighs on them – this has been a chronic problem for aviation for a while. But now, because of these headlines, it’s especially top of mind for pilots and air traffic controllers and regulators and safety advocates.

WOLF: You said it’s a chronic problem. Is there any indication or any data to suggest this is happening more often? Or are we in the media just paying attention to it?

MUNTEAN: I think these events are getting more attention. No doubt that these six that we have seen so far this year are extreme. Usually they don’t happen with such severity, with such frequency.

But the FAA, at every layer of aviation from commercial aviation on down to small airplanes and private airports, they’re always trying to remind pilots to remain vigilant. Something that pilots really train for in their first flying lesson is how to behave in and respect the environment around an airport.

In some ways, it’s like flying with a loaded gun. You have to be really, really careful.

The reason why these are happening, one pilot told me – who’s the representative for a large union of airline pilots and a major airline – he said the system is just under so much pressure right now. There’s a lot of corporate pressure for airlines to get back on their feet after the pandemic.

There’s a lot of new pilots flying right now, who may have matriculated from regional airlines to larger airlines. A lot of the old guard have retired. Pilots have left just because they were given voluntary leave packages as a result of the downturn of the pandemic.

There are a ton of different factors at play.

The fact that we’re sort of paying attention to these more just sort of highlights that nobody can ever let their guard down.

WOLF: Is the current air traffic system that we’re using technologically up to snuff?

MUNTEAN: I think it is. And I think the FAA would say that it is, because they have added in so many layers of technology to make it so that these incidents are avoided.

They have technology that can sense, at some larger airports, whether or not a pilot is lined up with the wrong thing, if they were aiming for a runway but instead aimed for a taxiway to land on – which has happened before.

They have more lighting on the pavement that warns pilots, essentially like a stoplight, to make it so they don’t go rolling across a runway as they are taxiing across one.

There are even systems that make it so that they can sense, using radar and other technologies, where airplanes are on the ground and not just in the air. Some of these runway incursions are caused simply by airplanes being in the wrong place as they are taxiing and not necessarily in the air.

I think the system is up to snuff. I think the FAA would say the system is up to snuff. But they’re also using this as a moment to sort of reinspect and have some introspection on the matter and whether or not they could be doing more to make it so that these problems can be avoided.

WOLF: You already pointed out that commercial aviation in the US is incredibly safe.

MUNTEAN: The last time there was a fatality was 2018, which was kind of a freak accident, where a person got hit on a Southwest flight by a fan blade that broke up in a jet engine.

We’re reporting on crashes that don’t happen. These are close calls, sure, but nobody’s been hurt. Nobody’s been killed. So it kind of shows, in a way, how safe the system is.

WOLF: Is there a spot in the system that is particularly weak? Is it takeoff or landing? What is the thing that makes pilots most nervous?

MUNTEAN: The common theme is having so many airplanes close together. That’s sort of the inherent flaw of an airport, right? You bring in airplanes and take off and land. You may be using multiple different runways at the same time. There’s a lot of demand in the air traffic right now.

Every airport is different, right?

Some airports may have a lot of runways that are parallel and a lot of taxiways that are parallel to one another, like at Dulles the other day, where we went. There are three runways lined up: one left, one center and one right. They’re all headed the same direction to the north. You have to be really careful that you’re lined up with the right one.

There are a few different things that you can do in the airplane to mitigate that and make sure that you have a safeguard of your own. But I think it really varies by the airport. In some places, there are intersecting runways. There are taxiways that have confusing turns.

The FAA does granular looks at things like this, where they say something like this taxiway design isn’t all that great, there may be a blind spot here, as you’re taxiing you may approach this at a 45-degree angle or it could be a 90-degree angle where somebody in the cockpit can see more.

Also when conditions are changing – we saw in the Austin incident the weather was abysmal at that time. It was very low cloud ceilings and very low visibility where the pilots were able to get an indication that there was somebody on the runway, an approaching FedEx flight and a Southwest flight that was still on the runway that hadn’t taken off yet.

They weren’t necessarily able to see that (Southwest flight), so far as we know, by their eyeball.

There are a lot of things at play. You can’t just say it’s any one different thing. And remember, these pilots are often going in and out of different places multiple times a day. The responsibility is on everybody.

WOLF: Do pilots face the same sort of difficult lifestyle we’ve been hearing about for train operators?

MUNTEAN: There’s a ton of regulation that protects pilots. We see that occasionally getting better. Even flight attendants have gotten longer rest rules recently, where they’re able to rest between trips for a longer period of time.

There’s always friction between organized labor, work groups and the companies that they work for. A lot of times it comes down to regulators and what they are able to do for workers. Pretty much every major airline right now – their pilot groups, as well as a lot of major flight attendant groups – are going through contract negotiations with their companies.

Some of the safety and protection, unions would say, comes from a good deal that protects not only their ability to work but also keeps pilots and passengers safe. Organized labor and unions have a lot to say about this, and they want to make sure that they are treated fairly to make it so that these incidents don’t happen.

I just talked to Dennis Tajer, who’s the representative of the Allied Pilots Association, which represents all the American Airlines pilots, and he said this is something that we’ve kind of been pounding our fists on the podium about, we’ve said for about a year that the air traffic system and the aviation system and the airline system are just under too much pressure, and now you’re seeing the result of that.

It’s on not only regulators like the FAA, the Department of Transportation but also companies to make sure that these major airlines – which are huge corporations – to make sure that their pilots are safe and doing the job properly with the proper amount of rest, with the proper amount of resources.

WOLF: Right. It’s in nobody’s interest for there to be an incident.

MUNTEAN: Everyone says safety is a top priority, of course.

But depending on your viewpoint, safety can have a lot of different meanings.

WOLF: It’s always been my sense that air traffic is one of the most, if not the most, government-regulated systems in the country. Unlike other areas where there might be a move toward deregulation, this is something the government controls and is going to continue to control.

MUNTEAN: It’s super regulated because a lot of the rules are, frankly, written in blood.

When you talk about this runway incursion issue, the landmark case is the Tenerife accident (in 1977), where KLM and Pan Am 747s that both diverted to Tenerife, an island near Spain, ran into one another and killed a bunch of people. There were some survivors, but it was a classic runway incursion incident.

One of the airplanes was back taxiing down the runway, as the KLM crew essentially blasted off without regard for where the other airplane was. They couldn’t see it because the weather was poor.

These regulations are often born out of horrible disasters. And I think the thing to point out here is that we have avoided disaster in these six cases, but in some cases came pretty close. It underscores why things were so regulated and also why the regulators are taking this so seriously.

WOLF: What are you looking out for?

MUNTEAN: I would point out these things are still under investigation. And the National Transportation Safety Board has tried to shed a lot of light on this issue. I asked Jennifer Homendy, the chair of the NTSB, why do you think these things are happening more?

She said, well, it’s possible that these things are happening more. It’s also possible that these things are getting more attention. It doesn’t matter; it’s good that these things are being brought to the spotlight.

That could ultimately have a huge impact on safety. Aviation is not waiting for another Tenerife. They’re taking these one-off scares and really trying to learn from them.

WOLF: You sound very passionate about all of this.

MUNTEAN: I love flying more than anything. The cool part of my job is I get to talk about aviation for a living, and it’s something I’m so passionate about.

I also instruct and teach people. I just came back from this incredible trip in Kenya where I got to instruct for the Kenya Wildlife Service Airwing, flying with essentially rangers, who are also pilots, with an anti-poaching air force.

And that was just incredibly cool, but the focus is safety. Maybe I’m a little biased, but aviation is just like something I always geek out on. It’s fun to talk about. …

I was invited with a group of instructors to go there, and we were in a national park south of Nairobi, called Tsavo West. We flew with 19 different pilots. Three instructors from the States essentially go down and audit their flying ability and safety.

They’re very, very good pilots. Because they fly at a few hundred feet, guarding against poachers and spotting wildlife, they don’t have a ton of margin for error. We did a lot of brush-up things with them, and they were all very appreciative, and it was a very cool and rewarding experience flying smaller airplanes.

Those are the type of airplanes that are best suited for that mission, because they can fly low and slow and have a lot of visibility. You can’t do that in a jet.

It’s sort of like flying into Jurassic Park, because you see elephants all the time, and we saw rhinos and more zebras than I can ever count, and giraffes. But these pilots do a really important job, and (it) was really cool to be a part of it.