Airplane Near-Misses: How Often Do They Happen? Page 2


“I’m not hesitant to get on another plane,” Townsend told Discovery News. “This was a rare event. But I felt that the (FAA) system wasn’t robust. They don’t seem to take near-misses as seriously as they should.”

Townsend wonders if the frequency of near-misses is underreported and whether something needs to be done about it. FAA officials could not be reached Friday for comment.

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One aviation expert said the air traffic system worked as it should in the Hawaii near-miss. John Hansman, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, noted that even though the air traffic controller made a human error by putting both planes in the same flight path, an on-board automated system alerted both pilots -- telling one to dive and one to climb. The Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) warns planes automatically when they get too close for comfort -- the near-miss.

“One person’s near-miss is another person’s normal operation,” said Hansman, who has conducted studies on collision avoidance systems for the FAA. “They are not that common.”

Hansman said a near-miss occurs when two planes get within 3 miles of each other and less than 1,000 feet. A near-collision happens within 1 mile or 500 feet elevation.

Just to put the safety numbers in perspective, more than 33,000 Americans died in traffic vehicle accidents in 2012. That compares to 803 who died on trains; 706 from boating accidents; and 449 in small aircraft (general aviation), according to the National Transportation Safety Board. There hasn’t been a fatal commercial airline fatality in the United States since 2009.

Worldwide, there were more than 36.4 million airplane flights in 2013, with only 16 fatal crashes, according to the International Air Transport Association.

Flying, said IATA spokesman Perry Flint, “is incredibly safe.”

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