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Congress presses acting head of FAA on safety lapses and computer system failure


The acting head of the Federal Aviation Administration faced heated questions on Capitol Hill today over recent safety lapses, including near-misses on runways and the failure of a computer system that grounded flights nationwide.

NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Alarm bells are ringing in Congress over a couple of near-collisions between airplanes in recent weeks that put hundreds of lives at risk. At New York's JFK Airport, an American Airlines passenger jet mistakenly crossed over an active runway into the path of a Delta plane that was beginning to take off. Air traffic control called for the Delta pilot to abort, and he did so safely. In Austin, Texas, one recent foggy morning, a FedEx cargo plane coming in to land came within 100 feet of crashing into a Southwest passenger jet that was taking off. They'd both been cleared by an air traffic controller to use the same runway.

At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing today, Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz played a video dramatization of that near-collision with actual recordings of pilot communications with air traffic control.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Southwest 708, confirm on a roll.


SCHAPER: The Southwest pilot confirms it is beginning to take off. When the FedEx pilot sees it, it calls for it to stop.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Southwest, abort.

SCHAPER: But it cannot.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: FedEx is on the go.

SCHAPER: The FedEx pilot pulls up and averts disaster.

Cruz then asked acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen how such a close call could happen. Nolen says it's still not clear what went wrong, as investigations are still underway.


BILLY NOLEN: It is not what we would expect to have happen. But when we think about the controls, how we train both our controllers and our pilots, the system works as it's designed to avert what you say could have been a horrific outcome.

SCHAPER: The other issue flummoxing senators is the January 11 failure of the NOTAM system, which notifies pilots of potential hazards. That computer breakdown led the FAA to ground all departures nationwide for nearly two hours that morning, forcing airlines to cancel 1,300 flights and delay 11,000 more. Washington Democrat Maria Cantwell, the committee's chair, wondered how both the system and its backup could go down.


MARIA CANTWELL: To be sure, the FAA must have redundancies and not a single point where a failure can happen in a key system like we just saw.

SCHAPER: Acting Administrator Nolen says the agency has since implemented fixes and changed its procedures to prevent a repeat of such an outage. But Senator Ted Cruz pressed him on that.


TED CRUZ: Will the fixes remove the risk of a similar single point of failure from knocking the system out? Is there redundancy being built into it, or can a single screwup ground air traffic nationwide?

SCHAPER: Nolen responded that there are redundancies and safeguards now in place, but...


NOLEN: Could I sit here today and tell you there will never be another issue on the NOTAM system? No, sir, I cannot. What I can say is that we are making every effort to modernize and look at our procedures.

SCHAPER: Nolen noted that over the last decade plus, air travel in the U.S. has never been safer.


NOLEN: But we do not take that for granted. Recent events remind us that we cannot and must not become complacent and must continually invest in our aviation system.

SCHAPER: To that end, Nolen is creating a safety review team of outside experts to examine the FAA systems, structure, culture, processes and integration of safety efforts while the agency continues its massive effort to overhaul and upgrade outdated technology.

David Schaper, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.