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Austin airport is getting new runway safety tech that could have prevented near-miss

A Southwest Airlines plane takes off from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, with the airport control tower visible in the background under a cloudy sky.
Michael Minasi
KUT News
A potentially catastrophic near-miss could have been avoided by new runway safety technology due to be up and running by the end of this month.

Austin-Bergstrom International Airport will have crucial new runway safety equipment installed by the end of the month. Federal investigators say the technology could have prevented a near-miss between two planes that could have killed 131 people last year.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is wrapping up installation of the equipment that provides air traffic controllers with a visual representation of where planes are located on the runways and taxiways. The system will undergo testing next week.

The so-called Surface Awareness Initiative (SAI) system is a less expensive alternative to ground radar, which bounces radio waves off objects to determine their location. The SAI system relies on radios installed in aircraft to transmit their location automatically.

Austin is among the first four airports in the country to receive the SAI system.

"[This will] further enhance our safety on the runways and the taxiways, and we are grateful to our partners at the FAA for prioritizing Austin airport as one of the first airports in the nation to receive this equipment," ABIA CEO Ghizlane Badawi said at a news conference last month to celebrate passage of the $105 billion FAA Reauthorization Act, which funds the nationwide rollout of such systems.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended installing the equipment at all major airports that don't have ground radar following an investigation into the near-miss at ABIA on Feb. 4, 2023. A FedEx Boeing 767 came within 150 feet of crashing into a Southwest Airlines jet on the runway. The Southwest plane, bound for Cancun, had 128 people on board. The FedEx jet had three.

An image from a digital simulation of two airplanes in close proximity near the ABIA runway 1-8-Left. A FedEx cargo plane is in the air, slightly above and behind a Southwest Airlines passenger plane that is on the runway.
National Transportation Safety Board
A frame from an animation showing the FedEx Boeing 767 coming within 150 feet of a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 on the runway at ABIA on February 4, 2023. The image does not show the fog that morning, which prevented air traffic controllers from seeing the runway.

Had the planes collided and all 131 people died, it would have been the second-worst aviation disaster in Texas history, following the Delta Flight 191 crash at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport in 1985, which killed 137 people.

NTSB investigators faulted an air traffic controller in Austin for assuming the Southwest Airlines jet would take off before the FedEx plane landed on the same runway. Dense fog that morning made it impossible for the controller to see the runway, and the Austin control tower hadn't conducted low-visibility operation training for at least two years.

The Southwest Airlines crew was also cited for failing to notify the control tower they needed more time to warm up their engines on that cold February morning.

But the NTSB investigators said the incident likely would have been avoided if ABIA had the SAI technology now being installed.

"[SAI] would have provided the controller a visual of the aircraft moving around on an airport display in the tower, so they would have had situational awareness of precisely where that airplane was," NTSB investigator Brian Soper said during a public hearing last week.

The news of the incoming surface awareness technology was welcomed by those overseeing the airport's administrators, including members of the Austin City Council and the Airport Advisory Commission.

"Yay for the FAA reauthorization," airport commissioner Wendy Todd said Wednesday of the bipartisan bill signed into law May 16. "That provides the funding so we can get the advanced surveillance and we can get the additional agents required and air traffic controllers and education for that."

A traveler stands on the sidewalk on the departures area outside ABIA, holding a rolling suitcase and talking on a phone. The terminal building, featuring gray granite walls and metal beams, looms above him. In the background, other passengers are visible with their luggage, some bending down and organizing their belongings. Several vehicles, including a red SUV and a white GMC, are parked along the curbside pickup area. A sign overhead says "DROP OFF PICKUP" with logos of Southwest and Hawaiian Airlines.
Michael Minasi
KUT News
More than 22 million people traveled through ABIA last year. Air traffic controllers in Austin handled at least 250,000 flights in 2023.

City officials have been working on their own system to indicate where planes are located close to the terminal. Austin's city council ordered in November that deployment of the so-called virtual ramp control system be sped up to reduce the risk of an on-the-ground collision between planes.

Deployment of a temporary ramp control system has been held up by issues with ground-to-ground radio transmissions. City staff placed an order for new radios, but building them could take up to 14 weeks.

ABIA staff identified a company to install a permanent ramp control system. They expect to bring a proposed contract to airport commissioners in July. City Council would have to grant final approval.

But despite the safety improvements, some officials remain concerned about long-term staffing shortages at the air traffic control tower in Austin. The NTSB report said staffing wasn't directly to blame for the near-miss between the Southwest and FedEx planes, but controllers had been working six-day work weeks due to lack of personnel.

“While getting this new system operational is important, I will not be satisfied with the needed level of safety at our airport until our severe shortage of air traffic controllers is resolved," said Congressman Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, who's pressured the FAA to beef up controller staffing at ABIA.

The NTSB will publish a final report on the near-miss within several weeks.

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 Follow him on X @KUTnathan.
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