How Safe Are America’s Skies? FAA on Hot Seat After Potentially Catastrophic Near Misses

How safe are the skies over America? That’s what senators want to know after 2023 kicked off with air traffic problems and near misses that could’ve led to catastrophe. 

Senators grilled the FAA’s acting administrator over sky safety after a series of high-profile incidents in 2023.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) showed a recreation of a near miss at Austin’s airport where a FedEx plane came within 100 feet of landing on a Southwest passenger jet carrying 128 people. 

“It is only through, as I understand it, the heroism of the pilots being alert and seeing what was happening that the tragedy was averted. My question is how can this happen? How did air traffic control direct one plane onto the runway to takeoff, another plane to land, and have them both within 100 feet of each other?” Sen. Cruz asked the FAA’s Billy Nolen. 

Nolen said that, while they’re still investigating, it was a low visibility day that day. 

“It is not what we would expect to have happened but if we think about the controls and how we train both the controllers and our pilot, the system works as designed to avert what you say could have been a horrific outcome,” Nolen said to Cruz. 

A Notice to Air Missions, or NOTAM, system outage temporarily grounded all air traffic last month. It was the first time since 9/11 all planes were kept out of the sky. 

“The FAA’s preliminary findings are that contract personnel unintentionally deleted files while working to correct synchronization issues between the live primary database and the backup database. We have found no evidence of a cyber attack or other malicious intent,” Nolen told the Senate committee. 

Nolen told senators changes have been made to prevent the issue from happening again, although the system is still in need of modernization, which means more federal money. 

“Instead of focusing on safety, the FAA and DOT were working hard to change NOTAM’s name from ‘Notice to Air Men’ to ‘Notice to Air Missions’. I would suggest instead the focus should’ve been on making sure the d*** thing worked,” Cruz said. 

Another near-collision happened last month at JFK airport in New York when a jet crossed onto a runway. The FAA promised to form a safety review team and hold a safety summit to deal with the ongoing and potential safety issues. 

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