In the aftermath of a series of high-profile near misses at US airports, and a terrifying fall from the sky, the Federal Aviation Administration will host an impromptu safety summit on Wednesday to assess whether changes are needed to the how American flights are regulated. .
In an interview with NBC Nightly News host Lester Holt, FAA Acting Administrator Billy Nolen said that while it’s still safe to fly, officials have become concerned that they’ve started «seeing things we don’t expect to see.» .
“We expect each flight to operate as it should,” Nolen said. “And we have had these events in recent weeks. That gives us a moment to say, let’s stop. Let’s reflect. Let’s ask ourselves the question: Are we missing something?
The full interview airs Tuesday night on NBC’s «Nightly News» at 6:30 pm ET.
Close Collisions Rattle Flyers
Among the most prominent of the recent incidents: an American Airlines flight crossed an active taxiway at JFK airport in New York City as a Delta Airlines flight was about to take off, prompting the FAA to issue citations to the American pilots; a Learjet 60 took off from Boston Logan International Airport without clearance and nearly collided with a landing JetBlue flight; and a FedEx cargo plane attempting to land at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Texas narrowly avoided colliding with a Southwest Airlines flight preparing to take off.
In fact, Show FAA data there have been fewer near miss incidents overall over the last six months than in the same periods before.
Still, compared to an average of four to 10 «serious track events» or near misses per year over the past decade, Nolen said, the past few months have produced more incidents «than you might expect.»
That also includes a United Airlines flight that took off from Maui and unexpectedly plunged 800 feet into the Pacific Ocean, causing terror on board.
«It’s a good opportunity for us to make sure, we’re going to pressure test our assumptions,» Nolen said of the summit.
Aviation experts have questioned whether one factor leading to the rise in incidents is the rapid rebound in flights in the wake of the pandemic. While the numbers remain slightly below February 2020 levels, Nolen acknowledged that the resurgence in air travel has affected the flight landscape.
“We are coming off the back of this pandemic,” he said. «And…we’re really seeing a pent-up demand for flying. Flying has come back with a vengeance, so to speak.»
That demand for air travel comes at the same time as the aviation industry grapples with a wave of retirements that have come as the pandemic has dragged on. Nolen said that while hiring is happening «aggressively» to refill positions, the combined weight of increased flights and continued hiring has put «some pressures on the system.»
Amid record airline profitability, Nolen called on airlines to continue creating schedules that «match their capacity and market demands.»
«We want to make sure, as we look not just today, but also into the summer and into the future, that that happens,» Nolen said.
Nationwide grounding in January was the ‘right call’
The FAA is also continuing to address concerns about the nationwide temporary ground shutdown imposed in January after its Notification to Air Missions (NOTAMS) system went offline.
Nolen said the strike «was the right move at the time.»
“What the flying public hopes is that they are safe and that there is a level of predictability there and we want to give them everything we can,” he said. «I couldn’t guarantee that at the time there. So we made the right decision in the interest of security to take a timeout, to make sure the system was secure.»
But he acknowledged that the FAA must improve a system in which there can be «a single point of failure.» He praised Congress for recently committing to provide funding so the FAA can continue to upgrade its systems.
«What I’ve heard over and over again: ‘We’re ready to help you, we’re ready to give you the resources you need,'» Nolen said of Hill’s officials. «And we’re very grateful for that. Our mission is to make sure we get it right.»
‘Flying is very safe’
Despite the recent crop of troubling incidents, Nolen stressed that flying in the US remains «very safe,» noting that there hasn’t been a major fatal event since 2009, when Colgan Air Flight 3407, a subsidiary of Continental Airlines, now part of United Airlines. – went down en route to Buffalo, New York, killing all 49 passengers and crew on board.
“We have the most complex and secure Airspace System in the world and it is very secure,” he said. «It’s very resilient. And with that, we will always continue not to take that security for granted. We will not become complacent.»
However, recent episodes have the attention of security officials, Nolen said.
«When we see some events pop up, we’ll take a moment to say ‘Hey, is there something we’re missing here?’ Because this is an incredible record, and we want to keep it that way.»