Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect two fatal incidents involving employees were reported this year on the terminal ramp.

Austin City Council urged the Federal Aviation Administration to improve safety at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport after multiple near-misses and two fatal incidents involving employees this year were reported.

Two-minute impact

In a unanimous vote, council passed a resolution Nov. 9, authored by council member Vanessa Fuentes, that lays out the following action items:
  • Develop a virtual ramp control system that will help navigate planes on the terminal ramp, the area where aircraft are parked and maintained
  • When critical incidents or emergencies occur at the airport, council and the Airport Advisory Commission must be notified immediately
“I really believe that [this resolution] will bring the necessary safety changes that the community requires in order for us to have a healthy operational airport,” council member Mackenzie Kelly said Nov. 9.

In addition, the resolution affirms the city’s endorsement of proposed federal laws regarding aviation safety and echoes action items first called upon by Rep. Lloyd Doggett.

Zooming in

In a letter addressed to the FAA on Oct. 16, Doggett urged the government agency to address low staffing of air traffic controllers at ABIA, citing it as a safety issue for the airport. Doggett made the following requests that council mentioned in its resolution:
  • Increase ABIA’s rank to a Level 10 terminal facility, meaning the airport is classified as high activity, to reflect the airport’s growth and provide more compensation to air traffic controllers
  • Provide a minimum of 12 hours of on-the-job training to each trainee controller
  • Give supervisors the ability to provide oversight without simultaneously working on traffic
  • Upgrade the airspace levels surrounding ABIA to reduce how much traffic is flying close to ABIA, which will lessen controller workload
“With multiple near-collisions this year endangering passenger lives, ABIA’s air traffic controllers are clearly overworked and understaffed,” Doggett said in a statement to Community Impact. “I appreciate the support of the Austin City Council in our efforts to press the [FAA] to urgently resolve ongoing safety issues. Austin is a growing city, and our airport must grow with it—including staffing up our air traffic control tower.”

In Doggett’s letter, he highlights four near-misses under investigation by the FAA between the following aircrafts at ABIA:
  • A Southwest and American Airlines plane in November 2022
  • A Fedex plane and Southwest Airlines plane in February
  • A SkyWest jet and Southwest Airlines plane in April
  • A military F/A-18 jet and a Cessna Citation jet in September
Diving in deeper

According to the FAA, the tower at ABIA is “authorized to staff 42 controllers.” ABIA has 35 fully certified controllers, with an additional eight in training.

Per the FAA’s 2023 Air Traffic Controller Workforce Plan, Austin’s tower staffing standard target set by the FAA is 51, meaning the 35 certified controllers fall 31% below the target level set by the agency.

This target of 51 is nine fewer people than the target of 60 that was set by the Collaborative Resource Working Group, a group formed by the FAA and the union for air traffic controllers that recommends the amount of controllers placed in towers across the nation.

“Even if all of the trainees were to certify tomorrow, [ABIA] would remain understaffed under either the FAA’s new standard or the CRWG’s target, and that doesn’t account for potential attrition from [ABIA],” U.S. Rep. Greg Casar said in a letter to the FAA.

In a memo overviewing safety operations at the airport addressed to City Council on Nov. 7, Jim Smith, ABIA interim chief executive director, said hiring a single air traffic controller takes two to five months, and it can take two to four years for a controller to become fully certified.

“The FAA is experiencing labor shortages across the country, not just in Austin,” Smith said in the memo. “Early retirements, lay-offs and career path changes caused by the pandemic caused a dramatic decrease to the numbers of qualified, working aviation professionals, including air traffic controllers.”

Looking back

In March of this year, the FAA hosted a “Safety Summit,” which included conversations on the air traffic system.

“The FAA maintains extremely conservative standards for keeping aircraft safely separated, and multiple layers of safety protect the traveling public,” a spokesperson for the agency said. “Safety experts follow up on all events and evaluate them for risks, and we hold annual runway safety meetings at every airport with a control tower.”

The organization concluded in the spring, to improve air traffic safety, the following steps would be taken:
  • Examine runway incursion data with the goal of identifying factors leading to incidents
  • Identify technology to help with air traffic control services
  • Reinforce safety protocols, especially those that increase situational awareness
  • Reduce the training backlog from the COVID-19 pandemic
“One serious close call is one too many,” the spokesperson said. “The FAA and the aviation community are pursuing a goal of zero serious close calls, which is a commitment from the Safety Summit in March.”

However, what was missing from the summit is Doggett’s urge for the FAA to address staffing issues as the underlying cause of near-misses on the runway. According to an audit by the Department of Transportation released in June, the “FAA continues to face staffing challenges and lacks a plan to address them, which in turn poses a risk to the continuity of air traffic operations.”

Prior to council's resolution passing, the Airport Advisory Commission approved a recommendation Nov. 8 to council to address these safety issues, including staffing.

“We are concerned about the shortage of FAA staffing, not only in Austin, but across the system,” Commissioner Wendy Price Todd said during an Airport Advisory Commission meeting Nov. 8. “And [with] Austin's growth, that the designation of Austin and the airspace around the airport needs to measure up to what's happening at the airport.”

Also of note

ABIA faced its busiest year ever in 2022, and over half of the airport’s busiest days ever have been recorded in 2023. The airport’s busiest day on record was Oct. 25 with 43,177 outbound passengers, as previously reported by Community Impact.

The airport itself is responding to the growth with an expansion, Journey with AUS, which launched in 2021 and consists of projects aimed at addressing passenger growth.

For more information, visit www.austintexas.gov/airport.