Near-Miss Collision at Foggy Texas Airport Exposes Flaws in Aviation Safety

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Beneath a blanket of impenetrable fog at a Texas airport, two aircraft–a hulking jetliner of Southwest Airlines and a FedEx cargo plane–neatly avoided a catastrophic collision, narrowly evading by a heart-stopping 200 feet due to a regrettable error made by an air traffic controller.

Back in the winter of 2023 on February 4th, amid this weather-beaten airport Americana, the controller on duty fell into the perilous trap of assumption — he firmly believed that the Southwest Airlines jet would commence lift-off before the inbound FedEx plane arrived on the landing strip. A misjudgement that could have altered many lives, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reported this past Thursday.

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Their statement, which pinpointed the controller’s flawed anticipation, also shed a disapproving light on the Southwest Airlines pilots, who failed to inform the controller that they required additional time on the runway before the start of their take-off sequence. The unanimous adoption of a revealing statement of probable cause by the five-member board raised eyebrows at the Federal Aviation Administration, which was faulted for not adequately equipping the Austin airport with technology that may have aided air traffic controller, Damian Campbell in tracking the planes.

At one point, the impending doom was averted by a momentous decision. The FedEx pilots, through the disorienting thick fog, caught the shadowy figure of the Southwest jet, which housed 128 souls on board, on their runway. In a split-second reaction that oozed bravery, they powered their aircraft skyward, away from a potentially disastrous collision.

Michael Graham, a board member with the NTSB, criticized the incident for what he called a blatant failure in aviation safety. He scathingly pointed out that the Southwest crew and the controller displayed poor judgment while also stressing the necessity of ground radar or other technologies that could potentially save lives by warning pilots of possible collision courses.

Grim conditions of thick fog shrouded the airport that day as the Southwest Boeing 737 surged down the runway for takeoff, almost scraping the FedEx plane making a landing approach at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Probing deeper into the incident, investigators unearthed glaring inadequacies. Controllers in Austin were found ill-prepared for such poor visibility conditions due to inexperience and a lack of exposure to recent training.

The seemingly endless foggy morass encasing the Texas airport that fateful day was underscored by the absence of a ground-tracking radar technology, a facility available at 43 other U.S. airports and one that would have noticeably aided Campbell in tracking the aircraft. Further investigations unveiled that the eager Southwest pilots were still about 550 feet from the runway when they declared their readiness for takeoff, failing to inform the controller about their need for more time.

Pilot communication and team efforts came into question once again when FedEx captain Hugo Carvajal III admitted feeling bewildered upon hearing the Southwest jet’s go-ahead for takeoff from the same runway he was in the midst of approaching. Thankfully, this brush with potential catastrophe ended in loud applause for FedEx co-pilot Robert Bradeen Jr. who was present at the hearing.

Despite this incident and several others like it in the past year that prompted a safety summit, FAA officials were stubborn in their stance that U.S. aviation has never been safer. They maintained that they were making strides in improving safety regulations and tracking technology.

Amidst a string of serious runway incidents that saw an increased leap from 16 in 2022 to 23 in 2023, Jennifer Homendy, Chair of the NTSB and increasingly vocal critic of the FAA, expressed concern about the troubling direction the industry was taking. She emphasized the importance of maintaining safety to protect public confidence in the aviation system and expressed her unwavering dedication to the safety of the flying public, an assurance that was echoed by the FAA.

Even against the deafening drone of public concern, the FAA reports that 2024 has thus far seen a drop of 59% in serious runway incidents compared to 2023. Through the incorporation of innovative simulators for training and sophisticated tracking tools like ‘approach runway verification,’ a sense of serenity is slowly trickling back. Despite the turn of tides, the FAA, aware of the harrowing path behind and the challenges ahead, has promised to consider every recommendation put forth by NTSB in detail.