Expert panel recommends FAA changes to prevent airliner collisions, calling current safety levels ‘unsustainable’

An expert panel assembled to address a series of near collisions of commercial airliners at US airports has recommended several changes it said are necessary to keep air travel safe.

Inconsistent funding, outdated technology, short-staffed air traffic control towers and onerous training requirements are among the issues “rendering the current level of safety unsustainable,” the Federal Aviation Administration’s National Airspace System Safety Review Team said in its final report, released Wednesday.

“The confluence of the issues we identified results in an erosion of safety margins that must be urgently addressed,” the report said.

The review team, which includes former FAA executives, a former National Transportation Safety Board chairman and former aviation union leaders, was established in April and tasked with examining the air traffic control system and delivering recommendations on how to enhance safety, the FAA said at the time.

The report gives the agency’s new administrator, Michael Whitaker, who took office last month, a roadmap for changes and upgrades.

The way Congress budgets for the FAA is undermining the agency’s ability to operate, the report said. It called for changes including exempting the agency from the impacts of a government shutdown – that could happen again as soon as the end of this week.

Additionally, investments in overhauling FAA technology have actually worsened the agency’s technology, the report said. Newer systems are layered on top of older systems, and few of the old systems have been decommissioned or replaced, according to the report.

Those systems are becoming difficult to maintain because companies have gone out of business, spare parts are no longer available and the older workers who installed the technologies are retiring without passing knowledge to younger employees. The equipment replacement backlog is $5.3 billion.

The panel also called for significant changes to the way air traffic controllers are trained. It said using upgraded simulators could reduce the years-long pathway to certification by 30%, and “unnecessary and outdated curriculum” could be cut from the training.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has said the FAA is 3,000 controllers short of its goal, and the union representing controllers said the ranks grew by only six in the past year. If the current hiring plan is followed, only 200 empty seats would be filled, the report said.

The panel concluded the understaffing means the agency – which is focused on handling tens of thousands of flights daily – does not have the bandwidth to focus on “sometimes longer-term, safety-critical areas,” including documenting potential collisions and identifying risk trends.

The understaffing is causing controllers to work significant amounts of overtime, which the report said is causing “absenteeism, lower productivity and fatigue.”

The report comes as the National Transportation Safety Board is conducting separate investigations into several of the near collisions. It said in two recent reports – one involving a near collision in Boston and a collision involving two private jets in Houston – that pilots acknowledged air traffic controller instructions to wait, but took off anyway.

The close calls at several airports this year come as air travelers have been returning to the skies following a dip in air travel during the Covid-19 pandemic and as air traffic controllers contend with an understaffing problem.

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