NTSB Proposes More Training, Tech After Southwest and FedEx Jets Near-Miss in Texas

June 7, 2024

The National Transportation Safety Board gave recommendations for new training and technology on runways during a board meeting on Thursday about Southwest Airlines and FedEx jets that were dangerously close to colliding in Austin, Texas, last year.

The incident from February 2023 has been discussed and investigated for over a year now. It prompted a Federal Aviation Administration “safety summit” and discussion among lawmakers, including state Sen. Ted Cruz, who showed a video reenactment of the incident last year. Ultimately, the FedEx jet saw the Southwest plane at the last second and was forced to fly over the aircraft to avoid a crash.

The probable cause of the near miss, investigators determined, was an air traffic controller’s incorrect assumption that the Southwest plane would depart before the FedEx plane arrived on the same runway.

Contributing to the incident was the Southwest crew members who failed “to account for the traffic on short final approach and to notify the controller” the aircraft would need more time for takeoff. Another contributing factor, the investigators reported, was the Federal Aviation Administration’s failure to require surface detection equipment at the Austin airport.

“Commercial aviation is by far our safest mode of transportation,” Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, said. “But the somber truth is it only takes one. One missed warning, one incorrect response, even one missed opportunity to install a life-saving technology can lead to tragedy.”

The incident was classified as the most serious level of runway incursions, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

On Feb. 4, 2023, around 6:40 a.m. Southwest flight 708, a Boeing 737-700 aircraft, and a FedEx flight 143, a Boeing 767-300, were involved in the runway incursion at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. The Southwest jet was scheduled to go from Austin to Cancún International Airport, with 120 people on board. The FedEx jet was a domestic cargo flight coming to Austin from Memphis International Airport with three people onboard.

At the closest point, the airplanes were about 150 to 170 feet apart.

However, several safety issues were identified, which officials sorted into four categories: communication between pilots and controllers; airport safety equipment and flight deck technology; training on the surface movement guidance and control system plan; and the need for 25-hour cockpit voice recorders.

No one on either aircraft had any injuries.

During the incident, two controllers were in the tower at the time: one worked with the Southwest and FedEx jets and the other controller worked the ground control and clearance delivery positions.

Because of the weather conditions, the air traffic controller was unable to see the Southwest plane on the taxiway. Weather briefings were given before the start of the shift, and the air traffic controller was aware that low visibility conditions existed.

According to Dujuan Sevillian, chief of the human performance and survival factors division at the National Transportation Safety Board, the controller expected the pilot of the Southwest plane would have already cleared the runway area. The hold-short line is the marking where taxiing must stop unless the aircraft has already received clearance to enter an assigned runway. The controller told investigators last year that Southwest planes took off as soon as they got permission.

Sevillian attributed it to expectation bias, that the controller responded in a way that was consistent with what they expected rather than what was happening.

According to safety officials, the fog and lack of surface detection equipment impeded the controller from monitoring ground.

Further evaluating the incident, officials are taking the four issues identified and providing recommendations on how to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

Officials recommend that the Federal Aviation Administration require air traffic controllers to advise pilots through direct communication ATC broadcast when visual contact of an aircraft operating on taxiways and runways cannot be established or maintained.

Surface detection equipment is imperative in these events, and would have been useful for a situation like this when low visibility conditions exist.

However, Austin did not have the surface technology installed.

Finally, the other issue discussed was the need for 25-hour cockpit recording devices, which would help keep data from being overwritten.

In 2023, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, there were 23 category A and B runway incursions, up 16 from 2022. These are the most serious levels of runway incursions investigated, of five categories. In 2024, there have already been seven of these serious cases reported nationally.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there were seven reported runway incursions at DFW International Airport this year as of March, none of them serious. At Love Field, there was one reported runway incursion this year, also not serious.

“To make our skies safer, to preserve our gold standard for aviation safety, we know we have to be proactive,” Homendy said. She continued, “The absence of a fatality or accident does not mean the presence of safety.”

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