Near misses cause concern

Recent airport deaths, averted collisions at Austin-Bergstrom strike chord with policy makers, safety experts
In September 2023 a military fighter jet and a private aircraft nearly collided on the runway, prompting questions about ABIA safety policies. Illustration by Mira Patel.
In September 2023 a military fighter jet and a private aircraft nearly collided on the runway, prompting questions about ABIA safety policies. Illustration by Mira Patel.
Mira Patel

Following a series of near misses and two tarmac deaths earlier this year, safety concerns at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (ABIA) have been raised. Frustrations between elected officials and city staff have escalated, particularly in light of the increasing passenger volumes.

Data published on the ABIA website indicates higher passenger volumes for every month of the year in 2022 compared to the previous four years. In 2022, the total passenger count was 21.09 million passengers, up 55.4% from 2021, making 2022 the airport’s busiest year ever.

In April 2023, an American Airlines worker died from traumatic injuries sustained in an accident while driving a service vehicle in the area where planes pull up to the terminal. In October 2023, an Austin Aviation employee was killed by a vehicle on the tarmac near the place where passengers board.  

During the past two years, there have been several reported near misses at ABIA. 

In November 2022, there was a near miss between a Southwest and American Airlines aircraft on the runway. In February 2023, a landing FedEx cargo plane and a Southwest aircraft departed on the same runway at the same time, almost hitting each other. In April 2023, a SkyWest Airlines jet was routed to ascend into the path of a descending Southwest aircraft. In June 2023, there was a near miss involving an Allegiant Air flight and a small private aircraft. In September 2023, there was a near miss incident between a military F- 18 fighter jet and a small private aircraft. 

Near misses are becoming more frequent at ABIA and have struck a chord with policy makers and safety experts who are demanding more efforts to ensure the safety of airport staff and passengers. 

In collaboration with U.S. Congressman Lloyd Doggett and U.S. Congressman Greg Casar, the resolution brought forward by Council Members Vanessa Fuentes and Alison Alter encompasses several actions the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) can implement at the Austin airport to improve airline and traveler safety. These actions include the passage of the FAA Reauthorization Act and robust safety reforms as followed:

  • Designate ABIA as a “level 10 terminal” facility, enabling the airport to access additional resources and provide increased compensation to air traffic controllers. 
  • Grant ABIA priority consideration in future transfers facilitated by the National Centralized Employee Requested Reassignment Process Team until staffing levels reach a satisfactory level. 
  • Allow for the appointment of an operational supervisor/controller-incharge to provide oversight without being tasked with flight data/clearance delivery duties. 
  • Ensure that a minimum of 12 hours of on-the-job training is provided to each certified professional controller every week. 
  • Study and consider upgrading the airspace levels surrounding ABIA to increase the protected airspace and reduce controller workload. 
  • Expansion of ground surveillance and detection equipment at large and medium hub airports to better inform air traffic controllers of potential danger and prevent runway incursions.
  • An audit of FAA workforce plans to ensure proper staffing.
  • A revised safety model for aviation safety inspectors including a set facility staffing level.
  • New cybersecurity requirements for aircrafts. 
  • Enhanced aircraft certification reforms for the design and manufacturing of aircraft.

The FAA has sole jurisdiction over air traffic control and therefore the city has limited ability to implement specific policies around near misses.

“The city does have a say over the airport’s ramp control system,” Fuentes told the Shield. “Currently, individual aircrafts are responsible for their own safety and navigation around the ramp. Implementing a localized ramp control system is one action we can take as a city to help ensure the safety of travelers and the general public.” 

The city does have a say over the airport’s ramp control system. Currently, individual aircrafts are responsible for their own safety and navigation around the ramp.

— Council member Vanessa Fuentes

Some larger hub airports utilize one airline to manage ramp control, however, as Austin is still growing, staff will be exploring an innovative virtual ramp control to safely instruct pilots on maneuvering their aircraft on the ramp prior to entering and after exiting taxiways that lead to the runways. 

“There are several issues that need to be considered regarding safety at the airport,” Fuentes said. “One of the most pressing is staffing. The Federal Aviation Administration is experiencing air traffic controller labor shortages across the country. In addition to proper staffing levels, ensuring regular on-the-job training is critical.” 

Alison Alter, District 10 council member, engaged the assistant city manager who oversees the Aviation Department to learn about the investigations and proactive safety measures the city would be taking to ensure that the issues and conditions that led to these near misses are addressed and resolved. 

Some issues that impact safety standards at the airport fall under the purview of the FAA, such as addressing vacancies among Air Traffic Controllers and other significant issues.

“One challenge we experience locally as we attempt to access additional federal resources is that our airport is not designated by the FAA as a level 10 terminal due to size and other factors,” Alter said in an exclusive Shield interview.

One challenge we experience locally as we attempt to access additional federal resources is that our airport is not designated by the FAA as a level 10 terminal due to size and other factors.

— Council member Alison Alter

Designating the ABIA as a level 10 terminal would allow the ABIA additional federal resources that could enhance the safety of both personnel and passengers. 

According to Alter, the Council has directed the City Manager to collaborate with the FAA to develop and implement a ramp control system at ABIA to facilitate and support safe navigation of the ramp and aircraft pushback. At a broader level, the Council has urged the U.S. Congress to adopt an FAA reauthorization law that includes robust safety reforms, including setting a hiring target for controllers to be set at the maximum able to be trained, a required study on congested airspace, and expansion of ground surveillance and detection equipment to better inform air traffic controllers of potential danger and prevent runway incursions.

“I look forward to receiving a comprehensive update from the City Manager on this critical work with the FAA and our federal partners, which I anticipate will occur in February of next year,” Alter said.

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    sophiaFeb 22, 2024 at 9:37 pm

    Mira, this is such a well-written article! It stuck with me, because of how informative it was.

    Reply