How a series of air traffic control lapses nearly killed 131 people
By Sydney Ember and Emily Steel
On a foggy Saturday morning in February, an air traffic controller cleared a FedEx cargo plane to land on Runway 18L at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Texas. A Southwest Airlines jet was on the same runway, but the controller said it would take off before FedEx’s hulking Boeing 767 got too close.
As the FedEx plane descended through thick clouds, though, the pilots saw the silhouette of the Southwest 737. The two planes were seconds from colliding.
One of the FedEx pilots commandeered the air traffic control radio frequency. He ordered Southwest to abort its takeoff. It didn’t. The FedEx crew blasted the engines to climb away from the Southwest plane.
The FedEx plane, which had three crew members, skimmed less than 100 feet over the other jet. The 128 people aboard Southwest Flight 708 continued on their way to Cancún, Mexico. Passengers were unaware that they had nearly died.
In a year filled with close calls involving U.S. airlines, this was the one that most unnerved federal aviation officials: A disaster had barely been averted, and multiple layers of the vaunted U.S. air-safety system had failed.
While the incident’s basic contours have been made public, a New York Times reconstruction of the near collision shows that an air traffic controller made virtually catastrophic mistakes.
But the errors by the controller — who has continued to direct some plane traffic in Austin, Texas — were far from the whole story, according to 10 current and former controllers there, as well as internal Federal Aviation Administration documents reviewed by the Times.
Austin-Bergstrom, like the vast majority of U.S. airports, lacks technology that allows controllers to track planes on the ground and that warns of imminent collisions. The result is that on foggy days, controllers can’t always see what is happening on runways and taxiways. Some have even resorted to using a public flight-tracking website in lieu of radar.
In addition, for years Austin has had a shortage of experienced controllers, even as traffic at the airport has surged to record levels. Nearly three-quarters of shifts have been understaffed. Managers and rank-and-file controllers have repeatedly warned that staffing levels pose a public danger. The controller on that February morning was working an overtime shift.
In June, Stephen B. Martin, then Austin’s top manager, and a local union representative wrote a memo pleading for more controllers. “Drastic steps are needed to allow the facility to adequately staff for existing traffic,” they wrote to FAA and union officials.
Austin is a microcosm of a systemic crisis. The safety net that underpins air travel in America is fraying, exposing passengers to potential tragedies like the episode in February.
The Times based its investigation on an analysis of FAA records, thousands of pages of federal safety reports, and interviews with more than 50 current and former pilots, air traffic controllers and federal officials. Many spoke to the Times on the condition of anonymity to protect their jobs.
“The close call in Austin should have never happened,” said Matthew Lehner, an FAA spokesperson. “The FAA immediately took a hard look and required training to reinforce current procedures at the facility.”
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the February incident. It has released its preliminary report into what the agency’s chair, Jennifer Homendy, described as nearly a “disastrous collision.” She added that “as close as that was, it’s just one of seven serious close calls and near misses involving commercial airlines that we have initiated investigations on this year.”
It was still dark outside when Damian Campbell started his overtime shift in the Austin control tower about 5:45 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 4. This was supposed to be one of his days off, but a manager had asked him to come in because they were short staffed.
That morning, Campbell, 43 at the time, was overseeing departures and arrivals. The only other person with him in the tower was a supervisor who was busy directing planes on the ground. (Lehner said the facility was not understaffed that morning.)
The thick layer of fog — an unusual condition in Austin — meant that Campbell couldn’t see much of anything, including the airport’s runways nearly 200 feet below. That was bad enough. But Austin also lacked ground radar, which meant Campbell had no way to visually monitor the location of planes on taxiways and runways. He had to rely on pilots on the ground to accurately tell him where they were.
About 6:34 a.m., the voice of a pilot on FedEx Flight 1432, inbound from Memphis, crackled through Campbell’s radio. The Boeing 767 was about 18 miles away, according to an internal FAA report reviewed by the Times. The pilot was seeking permission to land.
“One Eight Left cleared to land,” Campbell rat-a-tatted in response, using code for the 9,000-foot runway 18L. He added that visibility was extremely low.
About four minutes later, he cleared the Southwest flight to Cancún for takeoff on 18L. The FedEx plane was on its final approach, just 3 miles away, he told the Southwest pilots. The distance between the two planes was closing fast.
Another 43 seconds passed. The FedEx pilot, knowing the Southwest plane was on the runway, asked for confirmation that it was safe to land.
“That is affirmative,” Campbell responded. “You are cleared to land.”
The FedEx plane was about 150 feet from the ground when its pilots caught sight of the airport, obscured by the dense clouds. That was when they saw it: the outline, barely visible at first, of the Southwest plane rolling down the same runway that the FedEx jet was about to land on.
Both planes were moving fast. A crash was imminent. There was no time to ask permission. “Southwest, abort!” one of the FedEx pilots radioed.
They yanked the cargo plane up and gunned the engines to avoid landing on top of the smaller jet, which continued accelerating and then was airborne.
The aircraft came within roughly 50 feet of each other when accounting for the Southwest plane’s tail and the FedEx jet’s landing gear, according to FAA officials. (The NTSB said the planes were less than 200 feet apart.)
The emergency was averted, but the confusion continued. Campbell heard the FedEx pilot radioing to Southwest to cancel its takeoff, but he got mixed up about who was speaking, according to the internal FAA report. Pilots typically don’t issue commands, and Campbell thought it was one of the Southwest pilots broadcasting that their plane was aborting.
“Roger, you can turn right when able,” Campbell said, directing it off the runway.
“Negative,” a Southwest pilot said, his plane roaring into the sky.
Minutes later, the FedEx plane circled around for its second landing attempt.
“You have our apologies,” Campbell radioed to the pilots after they had landed. “We appreciate your professionalism.”
That evening, the NTSB announced that it was investigating what it described as “a possible runway incursion and overflight” at the Austin airport.
Several Austin controllers said they felt sick after watching video replays of the near collision and realizing how close passengers had come to dying.
Controllers say they are taught not to waste time between takeoffs and landings, even when traffic is light, to avoid creating logjams. Even so, current and former controllers who reviewed the Austin incident said they were baffled by Campbell’s actions. There was no rush for the Southwest flight to take off, since the FedEx 767 was the only plane queued up to land.
In the weeks that followed, controllers and pilots around the country said they had dissected the close call. Some wondered why the Southwest pilots had proceeded with the takeoff when they knew that the FedEx plane was so close and visibility was so low. (A Southwest spokesperson said the airline was cooperating with federal investigations.)
After the February incident, Campbell spent weeks working a desk job and was required to go through additional training. He has returned to directing ground traffic at the airport, his colleagues said. It isn’t clear whether he will face repercussions after the NTSB investigation is complete.