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TRANSPORTATION

Probable cause, findings of near collision at Austin airport released by federal officials

These recently released findings come from the executive summary of the National Transportation Safety Board's investigation into a near collision in February 2023 at the Austin airport.

Skye Seipp
Austin American-Statesman

An Austin air traffic controller's belief that an airplane would take off sooner, in addition to not knowing the exact location of the plane because of fog and a lack of training on low-visibility situations at the airport, were some of the likely causes of a near collision between FedEx and Southwest Airlines planes at Austin's airport last year.

These findings come from the National Transportation Safety Board's into a near collision between the two planes on Feb. 4, 2023, when the planes came within 150 feet of each other, putting the lives of 128 people at risk.

The summary, which was , includes the investigation findings, the probable cause of the incident and recommendations to avoid other close calls. The final report is still being edited and will be released in the coming weeks.

What happened?

The report found that the controller, Damian Campbell, gave the Southwest airplane the go-ahead to depart from runway 18L while also instructing the FedEx plane to continue its landing on the same runway at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

Campbell believed from his previous experience working with Southwest Airlines that when the crew called out for permission to take off, the plane was already lined up on the runway and ready to go. However, the plane was about 550 feet away from the starting position.

Because of dense fog that day, Campbell couldn't see the Southwest plane's location when he gave it permission to take off.

A graphic depicts the sequence of events that resulted in a near collision at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in February 2023.

By the time the Southwest plane lined up to take off, the FedEx plane was 1.5 miles away — half a mile less than the Federal Aviation Administration's required separation of 2 miles.

The Southwest crew failed to let the controller know it would need more time on the runway — about 19 seconds — to do a "run-up" check of the engine.

As the Southwest plane sat there, the separation between the two planes kept decreasing. This continued until the FedEx pilots saw the outline of the Southwest plane through the fog and then maneuvered to avoid a collision.

By the time the FedEx pilots saw the Southwest jet, they had already crossed the runway's threshold and the Southwest plane was more than 1,000 feet down the runway and beginning its takeoff. The shortest distance between the two planes was 150 feet, the report said.

What was the probable cause of the near collision?

The report states that Campbell's "incorrect assumption" that the Southwest plane would take off before the FedEx plane arrived was the probable cause of the incident.

As the findings noted, contributing to Campbell's "incorrect assumption" was his "expectation bias" that the Southwest plane was lined up and ready to depart when he gave it permission to take off based on his previous experiences working with the airlines.

Campbell's not knowing the location of the Southwest plane when it requested to take off and his lack of training in Austin on low-visibility operations were also listed as contributing factors.

The investigation's summary states another factor was the Southwest pilots' failure to alert Campbell of their intention to do a run-up test when another plane was on its final approach. While crews are not required to let controllers know this, the report said it would have been "prudent" for Southwest to tell the controller since the crew was aware the FedEx plane was on the final leg of its landing.

Other causes were the FAA's failure to require surface detection equipment at the Austin airport and alert systems for pilots to digitally see a plane on the runway.

The report also noted four factors that were not responsible for the incident: the qualifications of Campbell and the pilots, controller fatigue, air traffic control staffing and flight crew fatigue.

What are the recommendations?

As a result of the investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board made seven new recommendations to the FAA in an effort to decrease future close calls, one of those being to install surface detection equipment at airports such as Austin's that do not have it currently installed.

In April, the FAA announced it would be installing a new airfield surveillance system known as the "Surface Awareness Initiative" system at Austin-Bergstrom by July.

Other recommendations were that the FAA brief all controllers about the incident, that pilots let controllers know when they need more time on the runway and that controllers alert pilots when they are unable to see the plane on the runway.

The safety board also reiterated other recommendations it has made in the past, such as equipping planes with flight deck awareness technology so pilots can be alerted of traffic on the runway and supplying newly built planes with a cockpit voice recorder with the ability to record for 25 hours.

Austin adds more safety features

In response to a list of questions about how the FAA is responding to the investigation, the department said its officials "recognize the important role of the NTSB" and give all the recommendations made by the board "careful review."

"Our top priority is the safety of the flying public," the written statement said. "The rate of serious runway incursions in the first three months of 2024 decreased by 59 percent from the same period in 2023, from 0.56 per one million airport operations to 0.23 per one million operations, and the FAA and the aviation community continue to pursue the ."

The agency did not answer questions about Campbell, nor did he immediately return a request to comment.

A statement provided by the Austin airport said it "deeply appreciates the attention" by the federal agencies and advocacy from elected officials to provide more safety resources.

The airport will be receiving other new safety upgrades as part of a $105 billion federal package recently touted by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

Sen. Ted Cruz chats with passenger Brian Ponikvar, of San Juan Capistrano, California, after speaking at a news conference last month at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport about the FAA Reauthorization Act.

The FAA announced in March that the Austin control tower would be , which alerts controllers if a plane is going to land on the wrong runway or airport.

, Austin also became the first airport to receive a tower control simulation, which the FAA said is meant to enhance safety and help speed up the training process.

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, an Austin-based Democrat who previously called on "swift action" from the FAA in the wake of a string of near misses at the Austin airport, said he appreciated the review by the safety board and that it reaffirmed his beliefs that the lack of safety equipment led to an increased likelihood of a collision.

Doggett also previously called for more air traffic controllers in Austin, noting that the recommended number by the FAA has not changed since 2021 despite the airport's traffic increasing by 30%.