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The Tokyo Plane Crash Should be a Wakeup Call for the FAA

On Tuesday the world watched in horror as a Japan Airlines (JAL) jumbo jet crashed into a small coast guard plane at Tokyo’s Hanedo Airport, killing five of the six crew members aboard the smaller aircraft and engulfing the Airbus A350 in an inferno.

 

Miraculously, all 379 passengers and crew aboard the JAL flight from Sapporo survived, with aviation experts attributing their escape to the rigorous safety culture at JAL, instilled after a collision in 1985 - still the world’s deadliest plane crash involving a single flight.

 

Although the precise cause of the crash at Hanedo is still unclear, officials say the JAL flight was cleared to land but that the smaller plane had not been given permission to take-off. This should set alarm bells ringing for US airports and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), who are sitting on a powder keg of aircraft collision near misses.


The JAL jet was engulfed in flames after colliding with a coast guard plane at Tokyo's Hanedo Airport.

Reports as to how many aircraft close calls occur in the United States differ, largely depending on your definition of a ‘near miss’. However, a New York Times investigation found that there were 46 such narrow escapes in July of last year alone. NASA’s database puts the figure at 300 for the twelve months to July 2023.

 

These aren’t just fender benders either but potentially catastrophic collisions. In July last year a Southwest pilot had to pull out of his landing at New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong International because a Delta Air Lines 737 (which seats 160 passengers) was preparing to take off on the same runway. The pilot’s quick thinking avoided a potentially cataclysmic crash by mere seconds.

 

Nor do all such near-misses happen on the runway. In August an American Airlines flight to Dallas was travelling at 500mph when the collision alarm sounded in the cockpit. Air traffic controllers at Dallas had apparently directed a United Airlines plane dangerously close to the Airbus A321, forcing the pilot to pull up by 700ft to avoid a mid-air catastrophe.

 

With so many of these near misses happening every week, it’s a miracle that something as disastrous the Tokyo crash hasn’t happened recently in the US.


In August a United Airlines flight was directed dangerously close to an American Airlines plane by controllers at Dallas Airport.

According to an investigation by the New York Times, the main cause of these incidents is that air traffic control (ATC) facilities across the country are chronically short-staffed. In fact, by official FAA standards, 99% of control towers are undermanned, with many of the remaining controllers working over 10 hours per day, six days a week.

 

Additionally, some ATCs have complained of chronic mental health issues, as well as deteriorating buildings infested by bugs and black mould.

 

One such controller, who wrote to the FAA last year, said “the staffing shortage is beyond unsustainable. It has now moved into a phase of JUST PLAIN DANGEROUS.” The figures support this feeling, with the administration categorising 503 lapses in air traffic control as “significant” for the fiscal year ending September 30.

 

This chronic understaffing is the result of a failure by FAA to adequately train enough controllers. By 2032, there is estimated to be a net increase of less than 200 ATCs at US airports, despite demand for aviation likely to increase significantly in the next ten years.

 

Although the staffing shortage is a longstanding issue, it was exacerbated during covid, when the FAA slowed down its training of new controllers. Now an estimated 1,400 ATCs, or 10% of the workforce, are expected to have retired or left the profession by the end of 2023.

 

The crash at Hanedo Airport adds fresh urgency to this crisis. Yet the FAA’s solution, unveiled in November, is merely to allow new recruits to bypass the administration’s 16-week training academy in Oklahoma City. Tellingly, the FAA hasn’t said how many recruits will actually be able to take advantage of this expedited program.

 

Surely the solution to what the FAA admits is a 20% staffing shortfall cannot be slightly more, slightly worse trained controllers? There ought to be wholesale expansion of the training program, with additional places and facilities to keep up with demand for qualified ATCs. Controllers from overseas should also be brought in to plug the gap in the meantime.

 

The FAA has been navigating choppy waters in recent months, without a head administrator for more than two years and at risk of losing its funding in a looming federal shutdown. Now is the time to ringfence increased funding for the beleaguered agency, before the US suffers a repeat of Tuesday’s tragedy.

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