Watch CBS News

What to know about the recent close calls on airport runways

Former NTSB chair on runway close calls
Former transportation safety chair on close calls at airports 06:39

The Federal Aviation Administration is holding a safety summit after a series of close calls on America's airport runways.

 The latest incident — the seventh this year — happened March 7 at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Virginia. A Republic Airways plane, which was operating as an American Eagle flight bound for Raleigh, North Carolina, taxied across a runway where a United Airlines flight, an Airbus headed to Chicago, was preparing to take off. 

The National Transportation Safety Board and the FAA opened a probe into the incident this week. Jennifer Homendy, the NTSB chair, told CBS News it appeared both planes had received instructions from different air traffic controllers that could have led to a collision had the United flight's pilots not ultimately received directions to abort their take off. But a preliminary review by the FAA indicated that the Republic flight had actually been cleared to cross a different runway and turned to taxi in the wrong place.

Other recent incidents have included jets nearly colliding as well as aircraft clipping each other.

On Feb. 27, a JetBlue flight had to abort its landing when a private jet crossed into the runway at Boston's Logan Airport. On Jan. 18, two planes bumped into each other at JFK; on Jan. 23, at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu, a United Airlines plane crossed a runway while a private Cessna plane was landing; on Feb. 3 at Newark Liberty Airport, two planes clipped wings; three days later, on Feb. 6, a FedEx cargo airplane attempting to land at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport had to reverse course after a second plane was cleared to depart from the same runway; and on Feb. 22 at Burbank airport in California, two planes also tried to take off on the same runway.

Even with 45,000 daily flights in the United States and one of the world's safest transportation records, airport safety experts are concerned about the number of recent runway incidents, also known as runway incursions or excursions.

"These are serious," said Hassan Shahidi, president and CEO at Flight Safety Foundation, a Virginia-based not-for-profit organization dedicated to aviation safety. "Investigators need to dig in deep on each of these cases, see why these are happening, and put actions in place to make sure these don't happen again."

The NTSB and FAA have opened investigations on some of the recent close calls, with the NTSB releasing a preliminary report on the Austin incident, saying the planes came within 100 feet of colliding with each other. 

The FAA's acting director, Billy Nolen, announced plans for the March safety summit in a memo, saying "recent events remind us that we must not become complacent."  

Homendy said the NTSB will also be holding a summit, telling CNN that "runway incursions have been an issue far too long."

What are "runway incursions" and "runway excursions"?

Runway incursions are "any occurrence at an aerodrome involving the incorrect presence of an aircraft, vehicle or person on the protected area of a surface designated for the landing and take off of aircraft," according to the FAA's website. 

There are four categories of runway incursions, ranging from A to D, with A being the most serious category of incidents. In category B there is significant potential for collision, and in category A an airplane collision is narrowly missed. 

In 2022, there were 1,732 recorded runway incursions, according to statistics compiled by the FAA, and there have been 571 so far in 2023 (the list does not include a letter rating for each incident). 

"Runway excursions" is a veer off or overrun from the runway surface, according to the FAA. "These surface events occur while an aircraft is taking off or landing, and involve many factors ranging from unstable approaches to the condition of the runway," the agency says.

Why are so many runway incidents happening now?

"Anytime you have two airplanes on the same runway, you have a potential problem," former NTSB chairman and CBS News contributor Robert Sumwalt said. 

Investigators have just started trying to understand the recent incidents, but Shahidi said these runway incidents could have happened for numerous reasons. Airline travel is approaching pre-pandemic levels, Shahidi said, and thousands of new pilots have entered the workforce in the months since the pandemic. This increased travel demand and the new workforce may be putting pressure on the system, said Shahidi. 

Why are both the FAA and NTSB investigating these incidents?

Each agency has different functions. 

The NTSB is an accident investigation agency while the FAA is the regulatory authority, Sumwalt explained. The NTSB conducts a safety investigation, while the FAA conducts its investigation to see if any of the agency's areas of responsibility, such as certification of pilots, air traffic control, and airworthiness of aircraft, may have led to the event, Sumwalt said.  

The FAA has the authority to take disciplinary measures, while the main goal of the NTSB is to conduct an investigation to find out what happened so it can be prevented in the future, Sumwalt said.

Is it more dangerous to fly right now?

Planes are still the safest mode of transportation, according to a 2020 study by an MIT professor that tracks the continued decrease in passenger fatalities around the globe.

In a 2023 rating of the safest airlines in the world, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, and Alaska Airlines were in the top twenty. 

Nolen asked the FAA Commercial Aviation Safety Team to take a new look at Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing data "to see whether there are other incidents that resemble ones we have seen in recent weeks."

"We are experiencing the safest period in aviation history, but we cannot take this for granted," Nolen wrote in his memo. "Recent events remind us that we must not become complacent. Now is the time to stare into the data and ask hard questions."

Katie Krupnik contributed reporting

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.