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After a string of close calls, the FAA is holding urgent safety meetings


The Federal Aviation Administration has taken on a string of near misses on the runway and will draw attention to safety in dozens of meetings at about 90 U.S. airports.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Southwest abort. FedEx is on the go.


That's what it sounded like back on February 4 for the pilot of a Southwest Airlines flight. The plane had been cleared to take off from Austin. A FedEx cargo plane had been told to use the same runway and could have landed on the passenger plane with 131 people on board if it hadn't changed course. It's one of multiple serious close calls tracked by the FAA this year.

MARTÍNEZ: Andrew Tangel's on the line. He's an aviation reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Andrew, the FAA tracks these near misses on the ground and in the air. How has this year been different?

ANDREW TANGEL: The FAA classifies these incidents with different ranks of seriousness. And earlier this year, there was a spate of close calls at runways around the country that were the most serious that the FAA tracks. And so regulators were alarmed enough to put the focus on these so-called runway incursions. They held a big meeting in the Washington, D.C., area. They brought in airlines, pilots, airport operators to try to figure out what's going on. And these forthcoming meetings at U.S. airports are an extension of that effort.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So how are these meetings going to achieve what the FAA wants, which is zero close calls?

TANGEL: They're ultimately trying to tell everyone in the industry to keep their head in the game and be extra vigilant about safety issues. They are trying to figure out what happened in each of these close calls. They are also trying to figure out what could tie them all together systemically, what could be the underlying cause. They're trying to understand why there are these mistakes, either by pilots or air traffic controllers, what have you. The industry in the U.S. has all but eliminated major fatal airline crashes. There hasn't been one with a major U.S. airline in the past 14 years, which is remarkable by historical standards. And now suddenly things are getting way too close, and they're trying to figure out why and keep it from even getting that close.

MARTÍNEZ: So these close calls, the high number of these near misses - is it possibly because of increased traffic after the pandemic?

TANGEL: That is one of the concerns. There are a lot more airplanes to manage flying around, adding to the stress of an already constrained system. Air traffic control towers are understaffed. There are younger and newer members of the workforce, not only in air traffic control, but also at airlines, in the cockpit. The pilots are facing new pressures. You know, the traditional career path has been accelerated, given there are so many retirements during the pandemic when nobody was flying. And suddenly you've got younger pilots progressing to bigger planes, becoming captain in command of new airplanes that they are less experienced dealing with than maybe a counterpart might have been 10 or 15 years ago.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. That's the Wall Street Journal's Andrew Tangel. Andrew, thanks.

TANGEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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