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FAA investigating second near-collision at Austin airport

Friday, June 30, 2023 by Nina Hernandez

The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating a Monday evening near-miss incident between two planes at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

A passenger on an Allegiant Air flight landing at the airport told KXAN she experienced “extreme pressure” in the cabin when the plane took an unexpected dip.

The passenger said the pilot told passengers the plane had been cleared by air traffic control to take its descent into Austin, but the pilot had to make a “quick decision” due to a small plane in its proximity.

The FAA told KXAN the two aircraft were approximately 1.6 miles apart horizontally and 200 feet apart vertically.

This is the second time this year the FAA has investigated a near collision at Austin’s airport. The agency, along with the National Transportation Safety Board, released an initial report on that incident in March.

According to the report, the “runway incursion” occurred when a Southwest Airlines passenger plane was cleared to take off on the same runway where a Federal Express cargo plane had been cleared to land. The Southwest plane carried 128 passengers, and the FedEx plane held three crew members onboard. The incident happened at a time of “extremely low traffic” at the airport.

These events come as the FAA grapples with a nationwide air traffic control shortage and ensuing safety concerns. According to a federal report released last week, more than three-quarters of air traffic facilities are staffed below the agency’s minimum threshold. Furthermore, the report found the agency lacks a plan to address these staffing challenges, “which in turn poses a risk to the continuity of air traffic operations.”

The staffing challenges stem in part due to training pauses during the Covid-19 pandemic. And the problem may not improve anytime soon. According to the report, “FAA will not know the full impact of the training suspension or certification times for several years because training outcomes vary widely, and it can take more than 3 years to train a controller. Due to these uncertain training outcomes, FAA cannot ensure it will successfully train enough controllers in the short term.”

The Austin airport continues to hit passenger traffic records as construction proceeds on its $164 million expansion project. In March, former Austin Airport Advisory Commission Chair Eugene Sepulveda questioned if the airport’s safety protocols, personnel and infrastructure were keeping up with increased demand. Sepulveda left the board this spring, and his questions remain unanswered, he told the Austin Monitor on Thursday.

“When I left the advisory commission, one of my closing remarks was that we needed to confirm the adequacy of air and ground safety assets and protocols rather than relying on assurances from our partners, including the FAA,” Sepulveda said. “Everyone is understaffed and under-resourced. I fear our air traffic control resources could be as well.”

He continued: “Our daily flights are up (more than 35 percent) since 2019 and before I left I saw no evidence we (AUS) had confirmed adequacy of staffing and technology. I fear it’s an Achilles heel.”

Photo by Alec Wilson from Khon Kaen, Thailand, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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