What are the causes of the recent series of air incidents in the US that almost ended in accidents?
After seven dangerous incidents this year, aviation leaders say the sector is dealing with post-pandemic stress
The growing demand for air travel and staff reductions caused by the pandemic are likely to be the cause of a series of dangerous incidents that have occurred in recent months on the runways of airports in the United States.
So say aviation industry leaders, who met on Wednesday for an unscheduled security summit to address the series of recent incidents.
The meeting came a day after the start of a federal investigation into a near collision between two planes. in Washington DC a few weeks ago.
It is the seventh aviation incident to be investigated this year alone.
Federal officials are currently reviewing six “runway incursions,” as well as the terrifying nosedive of a plane that nearly crashed in the Pacific Ocean, looking for root causes and commonalities.
The latest near-crash incident occurred on March 7 at Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC, when a Republic Airways flight crossed a runway without clearance, forcing a United Airlines flight that had already been cleared to abort its takeoff.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is investigating the incident, said an air traffic controller intervened to safely redirect the United Airlines pilot.
Officials at the FAA-hosted safety summit agreed there had been an increase in incidents, with several calling for them to be treated as actual accidents.
“The absence of a death or an accident does not mean the presence of safety,” said Jennifer Homendy, president of the National Transportation Safety Board. “There is always more we can do to improve security,” she added.
The emergency summit - the first of its kind in 14 years, according to CBS News - is seen as a “call to action” for the industry and an opportunity to assess whether regulatory change is needed.
But the problem, experts say, is that airlines are still reeling from the chaos of the past three years. The pandemic not only fueled early retirements, mass layoffs and financial distress across the industry, but airlines went from hemorrhaging money at the start to being inundated with customers desperate to make up for lost travel time.
According to Laura Einsetler, a commercial airline pilot with more than 30 years of flying experience, the last time the industry was shaken this badly was with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 , an event that, according to her, the sector took more than a decade to recover.
“What we're seeing now, over the last year, is this really rapid increase in air travel and we're trying to quickly replace that 20%-25% loss of our workers (during the pandemic) by hiring people and trying to bring them up to date at this time,” he told the BBC.
This amounts to a tense aviation sector, he said, because elevated demand for air travel likely coincides with an overworked and underexperienced workforce.
Panelists at Wednesday's summit noted, for example, that there are 1. 200 fewer air traffic controllers in the US now than a decade ago.
“The pressure is always there to get as many of us in and out of airports as possible,” Einsetler added. “We need to slow down and be aware of the situation,” he said.
FAA data shows that while major incidents have decreased over the past two decades and there have been no fatal commercial flight crashes since 2009, the total number of incidents has increased.
However, security experts insist that it is still safe to fly in the US, arguing that recent incidents only represent a fraction of the 45,000 flights that take place every day.
“We in the US have a very safe air transportation system ,” said Hassan Shahidi, president and CEO of the independent nonprofit Flight Safety Foundation.
“What we need to do is make sure we understand the root causes of these incidents and that the industry is coming together to address them in the short term,” he added.