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FAA is laying out steps for air traffic controllers to avoid more close calls

(CNN) — The head of the nation’s air traffic controllers said there have been too many near collisions at airports and laid out steps to avoid more — including more supervisor oversight in control towers and extra controller training for “unusual circumstances.”

“Even though we all know that multiple levels of safety are built into our system, there is no question that we are seeing too many close calls,” said Tim Arel, chief operating officer of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Traffic Organization.

The five steps laid out Thursday by Arel in an agency-wide memo follow last week’s FAA safety summit focusing on the recent series of near collisions involving commercial airliners on or near the runways of US airports. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating six incidents this year alone.

“Our dedication to continuous improvement demands that we dig deep to identify the underlying factors and address them,” Arel said. “With the summer travel season just around the corner, airlines and the traveling public have high expectations.”

The steps laid out in the memo direct supervisors to “devote their full attention to the operation and airfield during peak traffic periods at each facility” and instruct improvements to training. The memo notes simulator training for controllers was “last updated in 2016.”

Additional safety steps include working with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association to reinforce existing safety protocols and reexamining runway incursion data “to identify underlying factors that led to these close calls and identify remedies.”

The most serious types of near-collisions on US runways this year are about double the rate seen in the past, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Thursday.

“In past years, they’ve occurred at roughly a rate of once per month,” he told a Senate committee. “Right now, they are this year occurring at a rate that is double that.”

Buttigieg spoke specifically about the two most serious categories of runway incursions and said there’s a “definite increase.”

“We think that the uptick is partly related to the especially fast surge in demand and the swift return to the skies — faster than even the most optimistic scenarios that we heard even a couple of years ago,” Buttigieg said. “We need to make sure of course that as that system comes back to that high level of demand there is no negative safety impact to that.”

Despite the recent close calls at airports, flying remains an incredibly safe mode of travel. About 45,000 flights are typically completed each day in the US, all without a fatality. That’s a number that continues to rise following a slowdown of commercial flights at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Air traffic controller shortages

Significant understaffing of air traffic controllers has been a contributing factor in the close calls. The FAA paused hiring and training of air traffic controllers during the pandemic, but the hiring has since resumed.

The facility controlling busy air space in the New York region is staffed at 54% of its target level, the FAA says. Nationwide, only 90% of air traffic control positions are filled.

“We are critically staffed in most of our air traffic control facilities,” Richard Santa, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, told CNN. “It does impact efficiencies and redundancies and resiliency.”

On Wednesday, the FAA acknowledged the shortage and loosened rules around airlines’ takeoff and landing slots at airports in the New York and Washington, DC, areas. It said the move is necessary because of “post-pandemic effects on Air Traffic Controller (ATC) staffing” in the New York center.

The move allows airlines to temporarily suspend using the use-or-lose takeoff and landing positions at JFK, LaGuardia and Newark airports in the New York area, as well as the DC-area Reagan National.

The FAA’s memo acknowledged that its staffing issue contributed to delays last summer, and said airlines appear to be scheduling more flights for this year. Based on the additional flights and staffing shortages, it forecast “overall delays increasing by 45 percent” in the peak summer months.

“The staffing shortfalls at n90 (the New York facility) limit the FAA’s ability to provide expeditious services to aircraft operators and their passengers that traverse this airspace,” the FAA memo said.