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Austin's airport safety is under scrutiny after a string of near misses

A pilot wearing a protective face mask in the cockpit of an Allegiant Air airplane at the South Terminal of the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport on Sep. 13, 2021
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Airport industry professionals running the city-owned airport insist they're doing all they can after a string of near-misses and two tarmac deaths, but current and former officials say the city should step up safety efforts.

A disturbing string of dangerous incidents at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport — including near-misses and two tarmac deaths this year — has elected officials clashing with city staff over safety at an airport where passenger volumes have more than doubled in the last decade.

Now, some of those frustrations are boiling into public view.

Austin City Council Member Vanessa Fuentes, whose district includes the city-owned airport, wants city staff to let council members know immediately when something serious happens.

"They certainly can be and should be doing a better job of notifying council," Fuentes told KUT. "There have been times with the near misses between the planes where I found out through the media versus from our own airport staff. That's not OK."

A woman dressed in red is sitting in an office and speaking emphatically. Behind her is a plant and a bookshelf.
Nathan Bernier
/
KUT
Austin City Council Member Vanessa Fuentes is bringing a resolution up for a city council vote on Thursday that would direct staff on a range of safety measures at ABIA.

Fuentes is spearheading a new effort to require immediate notification. The resolution already has the backing of at least five city council members. The proposal also calls on city staff to engage with the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) air traffic controllers at ABIA to discuss and mitigate safety risks.

In the more immediate future, Fuentes' resolution directs the city manager to speed up the rollout of a ramp control program at ABIA. That's a system to direct airplanes on the ground how to move and where to park. Right now, it's up to individual airlines. Having a centralized ramp control system would make an on-the-ground crash between planes less likely and might even reduce some flight delays.

The airport industry professionals who work for the city insist safety is engrained in their culture. The ramp control system has been in the works since last year. Airports are filled with dangerous things and staff say considering how to protect people is an inescapable part of the job.

But ABIA officials say they're powerless to improve air safety. Air traffic control is under the exclusive jurisdiction of the FAA, the same agency that regulates the airport.

"While travelers might look to the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport as a single monolith or entity, the truth is that this airport, and all airports, are little ecosystems with different agencies and entities that oversee very specific areas of the complex operation of air travel," airport spokesperson Sam Haynes said in an email.

This view of airport operations has frustrated officials like Fuentes, who said airport staff are "hesitant to fully take ownership over what's going on at the airport" while still acknowledging "a lot of it is governed and regulated by our federal government."

An aerial view of a baggage claim carousel at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Groups of people are standing around a conveyor belt, waiting to pick up their luggage.
Patricia Lim
/
KUT
The city of Austin expects 22 million passengers to travel through ABIA this year.

"I get that, but ultimately if something were to happen, it would be on our watch in our community. We have to do more. We cannot have this hands-off approach," Fuentes said.

Concerns about air safety have popped up at the Airport Advisory Commission, an 11-member panel appointed by city council members to oversee airport spending and the customer experience.

The commission's chair, Wendy Todd, will ask colleagues on Wednesday to recommend city staff work with their federal counterparts to find more areas to cooperate on safety. In an interview with KUT, Todd urged the public to call and write letters to the commission and their city council members.

Former commission chair Eugene Sepulveda, whose term on the board ended in the spring, said he raised concerns publicly and privately to airport staff and city leadership.

"There has been zero response," Sepulveda told KUT in late October. He said the responsibility lies with interim airport director Jim Smith, interim city manager Jesús Garza and Mayor Kirk Watson.

"Jim, Jesús and Kirk, the buck stops there," Sepulveda said. "Even though the way this system works, FAA has responsibility, this is the city of Austin's airport. We must bring outside resources to tell us how significant the risk and is there anything that we locally can do to reduce that risk."

Mayor Watson responded in a statement that he takes safety at the airport very seriously.

"The City is coordinating with federal officials and the airlines to ensure the well-being of everyone who travels through AUS as well as those who work at the airport," Watson's statement said.

On Monday, Garza announced steps the city is taking. The city manager said in a memo that he's asked ABIA director Smith to review the airport's safety programs, what is currently being done to support safety and how the city could "influence safety measures outside of the City’s direct control."

A string of dangerous incidents

The bureaucratic skirmish follows a series of close calls in the sky amid reports of exhausted and short-staffed air traffic controllers. On the ground, two airport workers have been killed in apparent accidents this year.

One of the most serious near-misses happened in February. A Boeing 767 was granted permission by air traffic control to land on the same runway where a Southwest Airlines jet with 128 people on board was preparing to depart for Cancún.

A FedEx pilot realized at the last moment the Southwest plane was still on the runway and aborted the landing, according to a preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board. The FedEx plane came within 100 feet of the Southwest Airlines jet, the National Transportation Board chair Jennifer Homendy said in a round of interviews this year.

An illustration showing how close Southwest Airlines and FedEx planes got during a near-miss in February.
National Transportation Safety Board
This illustration from a National Transportation Safety Board report gives an idea of how close the FedEx and Southwest planes were during a near-miss in February.

In September, an air traffic controller at ABIA gave the pilot of an F/A-18 fighter jet permission to perform a maneuver called a brake. That's a sharp turn to slow down before landing. The pilot of a Cessna Citation business jet had to swerve to avoid crashing into the fighter jet, the FAA said. The F/A-18 then flew close to a runway where a small propeller-powered plane was waiting for takeoff.

In June, an Allegiant Air flight on its way to land at ABIA had to climb sharply to avoid a smaller plane. KXAN first reported the story based on a tip from a passenger. The traveler said the shift in cabin pressure was so intense, their "head felt like it was being squished really hard."

At least two other incidents happened in the last year, according to an investigative report by the New York Times examining air traffic control issues in Austin.

In November, Southwest and American Airlines planes came dangerously close, the Times reported. And in April, a SkyWest jet was routed to fly into the path of a Southwest plane. The mistake was made by an exhausted air traffic controller, the newspaper reported, citing internal FAA safety reports.

Meanwhile, two employees have died on the tarmac this year in Austin.

Last week, a city employee working where planes park was hit by a refueling truck. In April, an American Airlines employee died after the vehicle he was driving crashed into a jet bridge.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating last week's death. An OSHA probe into the April fatality was closed last week. OSHA spokesperson Chauntra Rideaux said the companies involved, American Airlines and Menzies Aviation, would not be cited.

"We need more to assure safety."

At ABIA, controllers routinely work 6-day weeks. More than 70% of shifts fall below FAA guidelines for appropriate staffing, according to Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin.

After the New York Times report was published in October, Doggett fired off a letter to the FAA's then-acting administrator Polly Trottenberg. (Mike Whitaker has since been confirmed to serve as head of the FAA.)

Doggett demanded in his letter "swift and forceful actions" to beef up air traffic controller staffing.

The nation's air traffic control system has been plagued by a chronic shortage of workers. The U.S. Transportation Department's inspector general blasted the FAA this summer for understaffing critical facilities and not having a good plan to fix the problem.

A yellow Spirit Airlines passenger jet taking off from ABIA
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Air traffic controller shortages have been a nationwide problem for years.

In a statement, the FAA said the tower at ABIA was authorized to have 42 controllers. If you include eight professionally certified controllers in training, they have 43.

Doggett said those staffing levels are outdated for an airport that's grown as much as Austin's has.

"I'm not satisfied at all with the FAA's public response to my letter, because I think we need more to assure safety," Doggett told KUT. "Relying on trainees is an acknowledgment that we don't have adequate staffing."

Rep. Greg Casar, D-Austin, is teaming up with Doggett on the issue. His district includes ABIA. Casar, who used to sit on the city council, said he was also working with Fuentes on her resolution.

In a letter sent to the FAA administrator this morning, Casar asks a series of questions about the underlying causes of the air traffic controller shortage. He wants to know, for example, what the FAA will do to improve the completion rate for controller trainees.

But Casar says the best path forward for Austin is to have Congress pass a bill reauthorizing funding for the FAA. The House approved the bill in July. The Senate has yet to vote.

"The Austin airport has been growing at an incredible rate, but that growth requires us to make sure we're growing right, make sure we're growing in a way that's safe," Casar said.

Record-breaking airport growth

Airport officials expect 22 million passengers to depart from or arrive at ABIA this year. A decade ago, the number was just 10 million.

Nine of the 10 busiest days in the airport's history were this year.

The growing pains have shown. On the busiest days, TSA screening lines can stretch out the front door onto the curb. That happened again Monday morning.

The city's Aviation Department has already begun a $4 billion airport expansion, paid for with money generated by airport operations. But the slow pace of highly logistical work may not be fast enough for angry travelers stuck in the security line or waiting on the tarmac for a gate to open.

While airlines keep adding flights, including Delta's new nonstop service to Las Vegas and Orlando, there are some early signs of weaknesses in the city's aviation market.

 An aerial view of ABIA. Buildings and facilities that are part of the airport expansion are shaded in blue.
City of Austin
An aerial view illustrating the many projects planned or underway as part of the ABIA's $4 billion expansion.

Virgin Atlantic announced it would suspend nonstop service to London Heathrow in January. American Airlines plans to trim almost half its Austin flights starting next year.

But the airport's business trajectory remains strong, overall. November and December will have more tickets for sale out of Austin than ever. And while the airport is expected to see a slight decline in seat capacity in January, February and March are forecast to build on last year's historic gains.

"Our airport is rapidly expanding. It is way overdue for this expansion. We're trying to catch up and we are busting at our seams," Council Member Fuentes said. "Do I think more can be done? Absolutely."

Correction: A reference to the city's aviation department recently hiring a firm to pick up debris on the tarmac around the terminal was removed. ABIA stated this incorrectly and realized the error after publication. A ground handling company hired by the airlines recently hired more people to do this task.

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. He covers the big projects that are reshaping how we get around Austin, like the I-35 overhaul, the airport's rapid growth and the multibillion dollar transit expansion Project Connect. He also focuses on the daily changes that affect how we walk, bike and drive around the city. Got a tip? Email him at nbernier@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @KUTnathan.
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