A United Airlines Boeing jet traveling to Beijing in March had just taken off when its pilots noticed it was dangerously close to a small, single-engine Cessna already in the air.
The United flight, which was carrying 268 passengers, steered clear of the Cessna, but only by 300 vertical feet — a distance close enough to trigger midair collision alarms and prompt the National Transportation Safety Board to investigate. Under NTSB protocol, planes are not supposed be within 500 vertical feet of each other while in the air.
The March incident at San Francisco International Airport was one of at least a half-dozen close encounters recorded this year, with the near-collisions occurring in airports in Burbank; Chicago; Houston; and Anchorage, Alaska.
With those close calls still fresh in the nation’s collective memory, the Federal Aviation Administration announced Wednesday a new safety-awareness effort designed to help air-traffic controllers and pilots avoid near-collisions in the future.
“This spring, we had several close calls that got everybody’s attention,” said Robert Tarter, vice president of the FAA’s Office of Safety-Air Traffic Organization. “I think that’s the thing that has really keyed us into a look at some of the risks, and try to identify what’s been missing.”
Part of the program includes a confidential call center that allow air-traffic control employees to report flight mistakes without fear of recrimination. This has allowed FAA officials to use the data to support trends.
On Aug. 17 in Washington, D.C., the FAA will convene a summit of airline industry officials to help determine what has been causing the recent spate of near-collisions. Officials are asking every air-traffic controller, along with other employees involved in air-traffic operations, to tell them before the meeting what are the biggest safety problems they see.
In the past nine months, the number of midair close calls has increased sharply compared to the same time period a year ago. Through June 30, the FAA recorded 3.28 separation incidents, or midair close calls, per 1 million flights, up 35 percent from the 2.44 incidents per million operations a year earlier.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Recent near-collisions that have spurred a new safety program by the FAA: