The Times posted an article Monday morning, complete with animated 3D graphics, guarantee to alarm most of the flying public. In short, when a non-pilot passenger hears "close call" they imagine the airplanes passing wingtip-to-nose at impossible speeds. When a pilot hears "close call" they mean the planes got within 2 km of each other—and sometimes 10 km qualifies. But the Times decided to go with the wingtip-to-nose meaning:
The incidents — highlighted in preliminary F.A.A. safety reports but not publicly disclosed — were among a flurry of at least 46 close calls involving commercial airlines last month alone.
They were part of an alarming pattern of safety lapses and near misses in the skies and on the runways of the United States, a Times investigation found. While there have been no major U.S. plane crashes in more than a decade, potentially dangerous incidents are occurring far more frequently than almost anyone realizes — a sign of what many insiders describe as a safety net under mounting stress.
So far this year, close calls involving commercial airlines have been happening, on average, multiple times a week, according to a Times analysis of internal F.A.A. records, as well as thousands of pages of federal safety reports and interviews with more than 50 current and former pilots, air traffic controllers and federal officials.
The FAA issued a fact sheet later that day:
Multiple layers of safety protect the traveling public, including: Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems on commercial aircraft, surface safety technology at the country's biggest airports, and robust procedures. Air traffic controllers and pilots all play critical roles.
The FAA maintains extremely conservative standards for keeping aircraft safely separated. Safety experts follow up on all events — even those in which no collision was imminent or even possible — and evaluate them for safety risks. The agency publishes this information on our website, updating it as new information becomes available.
In addition, the agency has hired 1,500 controllers for FY2023. This is in addition to the more than 2,600 controllers that are at various levels of training at air traffic facilities across the country.
We welcome scrutiny and look forward to the recommendations from the FAA’s independent Safety Review Team this fall.
Journalist and private pilot James Fallows also posted that maybe the Times needed to turn down the volume a bit, but yes, Ronald Reagan's legacy still haunts North American aviation:
My guess about the story is that the team members producing it have dealt with aviation mainly as passengers. That is, not as pilots, air traffic controllers, former staffers of any companies or agencies involved, “hangar rats” at small airports, or other roles with first-hand exposure to the strengths and weaknesses of the system.
This is not a criticism. As reporters we spend most of our time asking other people to explain things we haven’t seen or done ourselves, so that we in turn can explain them to the reader. That is what makes the job so absorbing and fascinating.
But in this case I notice a few points in the story that I think would get different emphasis from many aviators. I mention them for your consideration in reading this story and others that are sure to follow on the air-safety theme. I’ll mention three.
At several points the Times story warns about “loss of separation” dangers when planes are “in the skies and on the runways,” as in the passage I quoted above. Obviously a collision in either realm is disastrous. But the latter danger is so much more pressing than the former that it should be discussed and thought of on its own.
There is all the difference in the world between a “close call” that happens on a runway, versus one in the open skies. A runway is a relatively tiny strip of pavement onto which planes that are taking off and landing must converge. A plane sitting on the runway can’t quickly move out of another plane’s way.
By comparison, the sky is enormous. And even in the few places where it seems crowded, namely the approach lanes to major airports, there is vastly more room for a plane to maneuver quickly and avoid another plane’s path, and more robust systems to help them do so.
What the Times got right, though, is that the Ronald Reagan fired the entire air traffic controller union and the system has never fully recovered. The section of the Times article on controller scheduling should alarm people—but more for its effects on workers than its effects of aviation. Keep in mind, in the last 21 years and 10 months, the United States has had only two air transport fatalities out of over 18 billion passenger departures—and neither person died because of a collision with another airplane.
One more thing: the "not publicly disclosed" incidents in "a NASA database" refers to the Aviation Safety Reporting System, which is fully public and searchable. (You can even sign up for a free monthly newsletter!) The entire point of the ASRS is to make aviation safer by allowing pilots (and anyone else, for that matter) to report aviation safety problems without worrying about getting dinged. In fact, if a pilot reports his or her own error to ASRS before the FAA starts an enforcement action, the pilot is immune from fines and penalties from that enforcement, though she can still lose her certificate if the violation is egregious. The Times breathlessly reporting on a "secret database the FAA doesn't want you to know about!" just seems stupidly ignorant to a pilot, and misleading to anyone who understands journalism.
Anyway, the last time a transport airplane hit another aircraft flying over the United States was in 1987 (10 dead). The last one involving a jet airplane happened in 1978. And those accidents led to improvements in air safety that we continue to enjoy.