U. S. airplane near-collisions jumped in 2013, FAA reports

The number of times U.S. airplanes nearly collided The number of times U.S. airplanes nearly collided more than doubled last year, though the biggest increase by far was in the low-risk category, a new Federal Aviation Administration report said. Here, a Boeing 737 jet comes in for landing at Long Island MacArthur Airport on March 29, 2012. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

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The number of times U.S. airplanes nearly collided almost doubled last year, though the biggest increase by far was in the low-risk category, a new Federal Aviation Administration report said.

The FAA is getting more reports of these events from employees and its new systems -- two factors that are helping to drive the increases. In 2013, there were 38 high-risk incidents, down slightly from 41 the previous year, the FAA report says.

The FAA technically calls near misses a "loss of separation." The top safety threat it identified revolves around communications, which impeded recoveries after planes nearly collided. The other top hazards were not issuing advisories, faulty monitoring, overly similar sounding call signs, and conflicting procedures.

"The National Transportation Safety Board is concerned about any situation in which airplanes get too close to each other," an agency spokesman said Thursday.

New York-area travelers experienced two such incidents this year.

In June, two planes flew within a half-mile of each other at Kennedy Airport. In April, two planes came even closer to running into each other at Newark International Airport: only about 200 feet separated them laterally; the vertical distance was about 400 feet.

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In both cases, there should have been 3 miles of horizontal space between the aircraft, and 1,000 feet vertically. At high altitudes, the horizontal distance that is allowed increases to 5 miles while the vertical distance remains the same.

Last year there also were 224 medium-risk near-misses, up 23 percent from 182 in 2012, the FAA report says. Meanwhile, the low-risk category leaped 100 percent, rising to 2,097 from 1,048.

However, these spikes might simply reflect a leap in reporting.

"It's impossible to say with certainty that's the reason, but I think it's probably a pretty good conclusion," Michael F. Canders, a retired Air Force colonel who teaches aviation at SUNY-Farmingdale, said Thursday. "I don't think people need be overly concerned about it."

He applauded the system for reporting by workers. "There's no reprisal, no punishment. . . it just allows for a recap and the proper actions, procedures, discussions to prevent it from happening again."He added, "The bottom line is that the FAA and the aviation organizations and airlines are trying to work together to prevent accidents."

This year, the FAA finished installing an automated system that records every near-collision. Airports with fewer flights now are voluntarily reporting events.

There also was a 128 percent rise in reports of these problems from pilots and controllers. Last year, there were 7,213 such reports.

Such calls do not subject people to discipline, according to the FAA. Instead, they are part of an effort to improve safety procedures.

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People who fly in and out of Newark this fall will get the benefit of a safety improvement -- special concrete placed at the end of runways that have less room for planes to overshoot. The surface crushes under the weight of any plane that goes off the runway, slowing it down.

The FAA earlier this month said Newark will get its second runway outfitted with the concrete improvement. JFK and LaGuardia already have two.

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