An investigation by the New York Times has found an extremely alarming trend of increasing near-misses at U.S. airports in recent years, with a major airline catastrophe getting likelier with each one.
We've heard several stories in recent months and years at San Francisco International Airport about passenger planes coming in for landings that have to do last-second "go-arounds" or aborted landings because of another plane obstructing the runway path. The first and perhaps most dramatic of these stories occurred in July 2017, when an Air Canada jet came within just a few feet of crashing into four full planes on a taxiway — and that turned out to be a case of pilot error, in which an active taxiway at night was mistaken for a runway.
But other stories that have emerged since then appear to be the result of human error of a different sort, specifically by air traffic controllers. These include two incidents at SFO in May.
In one May 12 incident, as the Chronicle reported, a United Airlines pilot had to do two consecutive go-arounds, leading to some back-and-forth finger-pointing with the control tower that was caught on radio. The pilot had just begun circling over San Mateo County for the second time, having dropped down to within 100 feet of the runway, and he was pissed.
"This is unacceptable," the pilot could be heard saying. "Two go-arounds for the same issue. … Something’s gotta happen with that."
A regional controller came on air and advised the pilot to fill out an incident report, saying, "We’ve had issues with the tower here for a while as far as some of these go-arounds."
"SFO has always been a case of [trying to shove] 10 pounds into a 5-pound sack," said aviation expert Ross Sagun, speaking to the Chronicle, referring to the large number of inbound and outbound flights that often only have two narrow runways to share on a given day.
"They are trying to cram too many aircraft onto too few runways," said retired United Airlines pilot Jim Lilje, speaking to the Chronicle. "This results in [air traffic control] cutting the spacing between aircraft down to the minimum. Sometimes the controller misjudges the spacing and sometimes the aircraft doesn’t move with the alacrity the controller is expecting, and safe spacing is lost."
While data shows that the number of go-arounds at SFO, about one in every 250 landings, is about the same as the national average for major airports, the closeness of the incidents is worrisome.
A second incident occurred just a week after that May 12 incident, and in that case, on May 19, pilots on both a United flight and an Alaska flight had to abort their landings because of the same Southwest Airlines jet making incursions onto two different runways in succession.
The New York Times presents a disturbing investigative report today regarding the alarming frequency of these incidents at many airports, which have largely gone unreported. And while the U.S. is currently enjoying the longest streak in history without a major airline disaster on our shores — 14 years — air traffic controllers, pilots, and other experts say it's just a matter of time before a strained system leads to a major catastrophe.
The Times points to a previously unreported incident at SFO on July 11, 2023, in which an American Airlines jet was speeding down the runway at 160 miles per hour when it barely missed a Frontier Airlines jet that got way too close for comfort near its path. And the same thing happened just minutes later with a German airliner that narrowly missed hitting the same Frontier jet.
In its report on the incident, the FAA called the near-miss "skin to skin."
According to the Times, the number of these near-misses has "more than doubled over the past decade, though it is unclear whether that reflects worsening safety conditions or simply increased reporting."
Many point to a nationwide shortage of air traffic controllers as the prime source of the problem, with some working extra hours and operating on too little sleep, and air traffic towers generally being short-staffed. Per the Times, "only three of the 313 air traffic facilities nationwide had enough controllers to meet targets set by the F.A.A. and the union representing controllers" as of May.
Controllers interviewed by the Times said they had tried to run complaints up the chain and made complaints to an FAA hotline, but they felt these have been largely ignored.
"Controllers are making mistakes left and right. Fatigue is extreme," said one anonymous controller in a report to the FAA. "The margin for safety has eroded tenfold. Morale is rock bottom. I catch myself taking risks and shortcuts I normally would never take."
And another asked, "Is it going to take people dying for something to move forward?"
Air traffic controllers schedules are also, often, grueling, with different start and end-times each day, six-day weeks, late hours, and sometimes just an eight-hour break between shifts.
According to the FAA's review of the July close call at SFO, while the Frontier pilot made a mistake in moving toward an active runway, the control tower also dropped the ball in not correcting the pilot's error — twice.
The FAA found that the staffing level in the control tower that day was "not normal for the time of day and volume of traffic," and the overall staffing of air traffic controllers at SFO was 33% below targets set by the FAA and the union.
Photo: David Barajas