Amid Near-Miss Crisis, City Fast-Tracks Safety Tech at Airport

Meanwhile Reps. Doggett and Casar urge federal action

Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (Photo by John Anderson)

As instances of near misses have been increasing across the country due to an air traffic controller shortage and a sharp rebound in flight traffic after the pandemic, Austin-Bergstrom International Airport's (AUS) February near-miss involving a FedEx plane that could have killed 128 people has become a notorious emblem of a nationwide crisis. At a Senate committee hearing last week on aviation safety, U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., used the Austin incident as an example to stress that "the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration], Congress, and the aviation industry must treat these near-misses as precursor events that, left unchecked, will eventually result in a deadly catastrophe."

The biggest issue is air traffic controller understaffing, which affects 77% of airports in the country, according to the Department of Transportation. This results in increased mandatory overtime and fatigue, making accidents more likely: "Every air traffic controller has the privilege and pressure of working in a role that is inherently stressful, even on a good day," Duckworth continued. "But that reality is no excuse for our current status quo, which forces controllers to regularly work 60-hour weeks."

“Every air traffic controller has the privilege and pressure of working in a role that is inherently stressful, even on a good day, but that reality is no excuse for our current status quo.” – U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois

So why can't the FAA staff up quickly? In October, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett sent a letter to the FAA to advance the ranking of AUS, as it's been qualified as a large hub since 2022 and needs more staff. U.S. Rep. Greg Casar sent a letter November 7 to the FAA asking for details, citing that according to the FAA's 2023 Air Traffic Controller Workforce Plan, only 60% of those who began training between fiscal year 2014 and FY 2017 successfully completed training. And trainees are dropping out more and more: The 2023 plan projects double the number of trainees lost from academy attrition in the 2022 plan. One factor is that there's only one training facility in the country, in Oklahoma City, Okla. Rich Santa, the president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, noted in the Senate hearing that there aren't enough retired controllers willing to move to Oklahoma to instruct the new cohort. This results in the new workforce being undertrained as well as overworked: Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board (which investigates these close calls), noted that there has been more reliance on computer instruction rather than in-person.

While staffing air traffic controllers to safe standards may take years, AUS could update its technology sooner. AUS does not have ground radar, a situational awareness tool that helps air traffic controllers see where aircraft are on the runway and that 43 other airports use. Duckworth noted that lacking that technology "drastically increase[d] the risk of a catastrophe" in the February near-miss case. In a memo to Council last week outlining current safety measures at AUS, Interim Assistant City Manager Robert Goode explained that the FAA stopped installing ground radar before AUS became a large-hub airport: "AUS does not have and cannot get this existing ground radar detection equipment." However, in June of this year, the FAA announced it is planning the "next era of a surface situational awareness tool," which the Department of Aviation could secure for Austin. Furthermore, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., has authored an FAA reauthorization bill that puts $18.2 billion toward making sure all large and midsized airports have modernized communication technology.

Most of these changes will have to come from the top down, but locally, City Council unanimously approved a resolution from Council Member Vanessa Fuentes last week fast-tracking the implementation of another technology that could help with airport safety. A ramp control system, which controls traffic flow in and out of gates, was supposed to deploy in 2025, but is being rushed due to the seriousness of current safety concerns. Fuentes' resolution also requires AUS to notify Council and the Airport Advisory Commission when near misses occur, and to release the results of investigations. It also affirms support for federal safety reforms, including expanded ground surveillance equipment standards for all airports, and a hiring target for air traffic controllers.

As for the controller shortage, Cantwell's bill authorizes more funding for FAA staffing operations – $67.5 billion over the next five years. Whether they will open a new facility or convince more controllers to stay in training with that money is up to them.

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