Key Points:

  • An American Airlines flight had to ascend suddenly to avoid a United flight due to an air traffic controller's error.

  • The Times reveals that close-call collisions occur several times a week, challenging the US airline industry's reputation for safety.

  • Understaffing is a significant concern, with 77% of critical air traffic control facilities operating below required personnel.

Near-miss collision between American and United flights raises safety concerns.

WASHINGTON D.C. — A near-miss incident in July saw an American Airlines pilot urgently elevating his aircraft by 700 feet to avoid a United flight, a revelation brought to light by a Monday investigation from The New York Times. This incident was not an isolated one. Several collision close-calls involving major US airlines have been reported this summer.

The Times disclosed that these near-collision incidents are alarmingly more frequent than what has been shared with the public. One air traffic controller voiced concerns, stating, "It is only a matter of time before something catastrophic happens." This statement underscores a growing apprehension regarding the safety standards of an industry renowned for its secure operations.

Delving deeper into the incident between the American and United flights, the Times highlighted an oversight by the air traffic controller. This individual mistakenly directed the United flight into a trajectory that was "dangerously close" to the American Airbus A321. The imminent collision threat was averted when an alarm alerted the American plane's cockpit, prompting them to ascend rapidly. Illustrative graphics in the report show the American flight maneuvering above the potential collision point, with the United plane passing beneath shortly thereafter.

When questioned by Insider, United confirmed the event but emphasized that both planes were "more than three miles apart when this situation was resolved." Further clarification revealed that at the time, the American flight was cruising at 500 mph — equating to roughly 8.3 miles every minute. The airline also pointed out the Federal Aviation Administration's definition of a "near midair collision," which categorizes such events as when aircraft come within 500 feet of one another, or when pilots or crewmembers report potential collision hazards.

American Airlines has not provided a comment on the matter as of now.

The Times’ inquiry primarily attributed human error, particularly mistakes by air traffic controllers, as a significant cause behind these near-collisions. A separate concern exacerbating the situation is the acute shortage of air traffic controllers in the US. Insider's Hannah Towey previously brought attention to a June government report, which identified that a staggering 77% of crucial air traffic control facilities were grappling with understaffing issues.