Near Miss at SFO Prompts 'Safe Landings' Bill

A flight takes off at SFO. (Bill Abbott/Flickr)

Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger of "Miracle on the Hudson" fame and Congressman Mark DeSaulnier, D-Contra Costa County, announced new legislation today aimed at making airport runways safer for planes and passengers.

At a press conference at SFO, both said the Safe Landings Act was prompted by a near miss at SFO in July 2017.

The Air Canada Near Miss

At the time, an Air Canada jet narrowly avoided landing on a runway where four other planes were lined up, waiting to take off. According to federal safety officials, the Air Canada jet came within just 14 feet of hitting one of the planes on the ground before veering up to circle and land safely. An investigation found there was confusion because of a dark closed parallel runway during the late-night landing. A number of other miscommunication errors and crew fatigue contributed to what would have been a massive disaster.

"It could easily have been one of the worst catastrophes in the entire history of aviation," said Sullenberger, but he emphasized it provided an opportunity to review safety protocols. Before an accident is better than after.

According to DeSaulnier, runway incursions have increased by 83% in the last six years—meaning incidents where an unauthorized or incorrect vehicle or person was on a runway. And runway interactions—ie. landings, takeoffs and taxiing—represent over one-third of accidents. “With near-misses on the rise, we need to act now to ensure that those incidents do not turn into accidents and that our aviation system remains the safest in the world,” he said.

DeSaulnier said he spent two years meeting with aviation experts, like Sullenberger, pilots unions, air traffic controllers, ground safety crews, and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in order to review what went wrong two years ago and to identify room for improvement.

The bill proposes:

  • requiring the FAA to implement systems to automatically alert pilots and air traffic controllers if a plane is not properly lined up to land on the right runway.
  • having the FAA gather data on which airlines require pilots to use electronic guidance systems as back-ups to visual approaches, and issue industry-wide guidance on best practices. (Pilots are not always required to use the electronic guidance as a back-up to visually looking for the runway.)
  • modernizing the notices system to make it more user-friendly for pilots, instead of being dense pages of paper.
  • conducting a study of the cockpit voice recorders in order to address pilot concerns, while also more effectively using them to investigate accidents. (The cockpit voice recorders currently hold only two hours of data.)
  • creating a task force to review potential human error and fatigue, and provide recommendations.

"Accidents are almost never the result of a single fault or a single error," said Sullenberger.

"It's a matter of filling in gaps or correcting flaws in our safety net to make this system really robust and resilient enough to tolerate the inevitable errors that will occur, so that passengers and crew can be kept safe on every flight, every day, every week, every month, every year. And that's a hard thing to do. We make it look easy, these gentlemen and their colleagues make it look easy, but it's not," he said.

A spokesman for the FAA, while noting the agency does not comment on pending legislation, did say they counted just 13 serious runway incursions in the 2018 fiscal year and suggested the number of incursions has increased annually because of increased voluntary reporting of less serious incidents.

The FAA is also already conducting its own study of 21 airports to look at common geography and layout issues that contribute to wrong landings. The agency is also testing a notification system at ten airports, which issues an alert when an aircraft is lined up for a taxiway instead of a runway. The system will be rolled out to additional airports in the next year. None of the current ten airports are in California.

The proposed bill has a price tag of $20 million, but the cost of implementing whatever recommendations come out of these proposals would likely fall on other parties as well, said DeSaulnier.