FAA issues industrywide call to action following runway close calls

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The Federal Aviation Administration told airlines in a rare industrywide bulletin Wednesday to step up vigilance at airports after a series of close calls on or near runways.

The agency published an “aviation safety call to action,” urging carriers to “reinforce adherence to published processes and procedures.”

“Operators should evaluate information collected through their safety management processes, identify hazards, increase and improve safety communications with employees and enact mitigations,” the safety alert says.

While flying remains an incredibly safe way to travel, the bulletin recommends “areas of focus” highlighted by recent events, including: using internal communication processes to “highlight … existing issues;” reinforcing rules, such as checklists and Air Traffic Control instructions; ensuring pilots and flight attendants understand what a “sterile flight deck” means, including the risks of extraneous communication; and reviewing runway safety protocols.

Such sweeping FAA bulletins are generally rare. This is just the second “Safety Alert for Operators” issued this year, and there were only three last year, each dealing with specific airports or plane systems rather than a broad call to action.

The bulletin follows by a week an emergency FAA safety summit that brought together regulators and industry groups after at least six high-profile runway incursions were reported at large US airports since the start of this year.

In its opening remarks, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg cited an “uptick” in aviation incidents and called on participants to help find the “root causes” of the problem.

“We are particularly concerned because we have seen an uptick in serious close calls,” he said at the event in McLean, Virginia.

The FAA safety summit was the first of its kind since 2009 and kicked off a sweeping safety review the agency is conducting in the wake of the runway incursions.

“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,” National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy told government and industry leaders gathered for it.

Still, commercial plane crashes are very rare, with approximately 45,000 flights typically completed each day in the US, all without fatality. That’s a number that continues to rise following a slowdown of commercial flights at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Separately, a Senate committee vote to consider President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the FAA has been delayed, despite a vote being previously scheduled for Wednesday morning.

Phil Washington, whose nomination was first announced by Biden some eight months ago, has faced continued resistance from Republican members of Congress over a number of issues, including his slim aviation-related credentials and his potential legal entanglements.

One report of a close call on a US runway involving a commercial airliner has only recently come to light.

An airliner and emergency vehicle came less than a football field’s length away from colliding on a runway at the Baltimore airport earlier this year, according to an FAA report.

The National Transportation Safety Board told CNN it is not investigating this incident.

The FAA determined the emergency vehicle crossed a runway at the Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport on January 12 without air traffic controller permission.

An FAA incident report says the driver of the vehicle read back incorrect instructions to the controller but that the controller “did not catch the incorrect read-back.” The report classifies the incident as category B, which is considered less severe than category A incidents.

“The plane took off before it reached the point where the vehicle had crossed,” the FAA said in a statement. “The FAA estimates the vehicle was approximately 170 feet past the runway when the airborne plane flew over that intersection.”

The incident report says the plane was 25 feet off the ground when it reached the intersection where the vehicle had been.