NTSB Cites Faulty Controller Assumption in Near-Miss Incident Over Texas

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has concluded that a near-catastrophic incident between a FedEx Boeing 767 cargo plane and a Southwest Airlines 737-700 passenger jet in February 2023 over Austin, Texas, stemmed from a critical error by an air traffic controller.


The incident, which could have resulted in a "terrible tragedy" according to NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy, unfolded when the controller mistakenly cleared both planes to use the same runway for landing and takeoff respectively. This error stemmed from an "expectation bias" where the controller assumed the Southwest flight, known for faster turnaround times, had already departed before the FedEx aircraft approached for landing in low visibility conditions.


Thanks to the vigilance of the FedEx crew, disaster was averted. The first officer spotted a single light through the fog, followed by the silhouette of the Southwest airplane. With a quick decision, they initiated a climb to avoid a collision. The Southwest jet, fortunately, was on its takeoff roll and was able to pass beneath the climbing FedEx plane before both reached safe altitudes.


The NTSB report highlights the dangers of controller workload and confirmation bias in air traffic control. The controller, managing multiple aircraft at the time, may have fallen prey to the assumption that the Southwest flight had already departed based on past experiences. This incident serves as a stark reminder of the importance of clear communication and maintaining complete situational awareness for air traffic controllers. The near miss has reignited concerns about understaffing within the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) air traffic control system. The FAA has pledged to address these concerns and improve staffing levels. The NTSB is expected to release a final report with specific recommendations aimed at preventing similar incidents. These recommendations will likely focus on improved communication protocols for air traffic controllers, potentially including measures to manage workload more effectively during peak traffic periods.

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