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NTSB warns Congress: Air safety showing 'clear signs of strain'

Close encounters between aircraft are on the rise as Congress considers a new aviation bill that could help combat aviation workplace fatigue.
NTSB warns Congress: Air safety showing 'clear signs of strain'
Posted at 5:00 AM, Nov 20, 2023

There is a good chance you or a loved one will be traveling this Thanksgiving. While airports can be stressful and delays can happen, the reality is that it is the safest way to travel.

A major commercial plane crash hasn't happened in more than 10 years in the U.S. However, some experts are warning that close encounters between aircraft are happening way too often and that Congress needs to step in to improve safety.

SEE MORE: Pilot lifestyle and staffing shortages add to spikes in job pressure

Opportunity in December

The best opportunity for Congress to improve safety comes in the form of something known as the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act. It may sound complicated, but it is an important five-year piece of legislation that can update safety standards drastically.

The current authorization expires on Dec. 31, which means Congress must soon pass something, either a long-term bill or a temporary extension of existing laws.

Warnings to Congress

At a recent hearing on Capitol Hill, safety leaders warned Congress that safety risks are on the rise.

"Our safety system is showing clear signs of strain that we cannot ignore," Jennifer Homendy, the chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said.

Homendy's safety fears are especially pronounced when it comes to runways with aircraft nearly colliding with each other. Homendy presented a chart showing how these so-called "incursions" are getting worse.

"The NTSB has opened investigations into seven runway incursions this year alone where aircraft got within several hundred feet of each other," Homendy testified.

"Combined, these events put more than 1,300 lives at risk," Homendy said.

The NTSB says there isn't one reason why this is happening, but multiple.

The biggest concerns, though, are air traffic controller shortages, too much overtime and fatigue among staff, mental health challenges and new employees in need of mentorship. All of these are issues that could lead to a tragedy and all issues that require money to fix.

Funding airline safety is one of the many big debates expected in Congress after the Thanksgiving holiday, with lawmakers currently disagreeing on dollar figure amounts and actual assistance programs.

There is a shortage of 3,000 air traffic controllers currently, according to government figures.

Only 43 airports deploy "surface situational awareness technology" that can help prevent collisions.

"It only takes one missed warning to become a tragedy," Homendy said.

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