FedEx and Southwest planes may have come within 100 feet of each other during a close call

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The flight that landed at the Austin airport last weekend appeared to be within 100 feet of a Southwest Airlines LUV. -0.91%

The flight took off, according to the head of the security agency leading the investigation into the incident, the second close call in three weeks.

“FedEx was right over that Southwest plane at one point and they were both going down the runway, one above the other,” Jennifer Homendy, president of the National Transportation Safety Board, said in an interview.

The event went on for about two minutes. The FedEx flight began to climb and asked the Southwest flight to abort its takeoff, Homendy said. “That was pretty heroic of the FedEx pilot,” he said.

Although the Southwest flight continued to take off, the two planes were able to keep apart, avoiding what Ms Homendy said could have been a tragic accident. The Southwest flight to Cancun had 123 passengers and five crew members, the airline said.

Investigators from the NTSB, as well as the Federal Aviation Administration, are still looking into what led to the near collision, but Ms Homendy said it could have been prevented. A FedEx spokeswoman said the company appreciated the efforts of its flight crew to land the flight from Austin safely. Southwest had no immediate comment.

Dozens of other airports have surveillance systems that use radar and satellites to help air traffic controllers track the movements of planes and vehicles on airport surfaces. The FAA funds and manages that technology, which the agency says helps air traffic controllers track movements on runways and taxiways.

That system is installed at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and alerted a controller last month when an American Airlines plane began to cross a runway where a Delta flight was about to take off, Homendy said. The Austin airport does not have the same system.

“There is technology available that could have been in Austin to really prevent this,” he said.

When the Southwest pilots told air traffic control they were on the runway and ready on Saturday, the FedEx Boeing Co.

The 767 was about 4 miles from the end of the runway, Homendy said.

That distance is not unusual when conditions are good, but it was nearly dark at the time and visibility was poor due to weather conditions, something the researchers plan to examine, he said.

Air traffic controllers could see the FedEx flight, but they couldn’t see the Southwest flight preparing to take off on the surface, Homendy said.

The incident at JFK in January was another close call. After noticing that the Delta flight was heading towards another plane, a controller quickly asked that the flight cancel its takeoff. The Delta plane came within 1,400 feet of the American jet and stopped about 500 feet short of the intersection where the American flight had crossed, Homendy said.

Aviation security researchers have focused on close call prevention on runways in recent years. Ms Homendy said the safety board has investigated 17 such incidents in the last decade involving commercial and private flights.

Near misses as serious as those at JFK and Austin are rare.

The FAA has said it has taken steps to tighten runway safety over the years. For example, it developed technology that uses runway lights to signal potentially unsafe situations to airport vehicle pilots and drivers, according to an agency description.

One factor that could make it difficult to gather information in both investigations is that data from voice recorders capturing audio from aircraft cockpits was not immediately removed and was likely overwritten on all four aircraft involved in the two incidents, Homendy said. That’s one reason the NTSB has advocated for recorders that can capture 25 hours of data, instead of the current two hours of recording capacity.

The safety board’s investigation will consider a variety of factors, Homendy said, but the two close calls were different.

“We are certainly concerned, which is why we are investigating both,” he said. But, “I don’t think we can say there is a trend.”

Email Alison Sider at aliso[email protected] and Micah Maidenberg at [email protected]

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