AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin airport’s interim CEO Jim Smith this week sent a memo to the Austin city council and mayor detailing safety operations in place at the airport following two employee deaths this year.

Last week, Interim Austin City Manager Jesús Garza sent a memo to the mayor and city council stating that he had asked Smith to review the Department of Aviation’s safety programs to “help identify what elements of the airport enterprise is specifically under the City’s purview, the initiatives currently underway by the Department to support safety at the airport, and how we can influence safety measures outside of the City’s direct control.”

Smith’s memo “provides an overview of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS) operations related to safety, precipitated by the two tragic incidents this year that resulted in the death of airport employees.”

The memo details information about what elements of the airport are under the city’s purview, initiatives currently underway to support safety and an update on the Department of Aviation’s “commitment to ensuring a safe airport for our employees, passengers, business partners, neighbors, and community,” the memo stated.

Driver safety programs

According to the memo, the Department of Aviation manages a mandatory driver safety program for all airport employees, regardless of employer, that must be completed every year by every employee who operates trucks, cars, ground service equipment and other motorized vehicles on the ramp.

Airlines and other businesses whose employees drive on the terminal ramp also often choose to have their own safety programs, procedures and trainings that are specific to each business, according to the memo.

Smith said in the memo AUS will use findings from the death investigations to determine if any changes are needed.

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and pilot communications

The memo stated that in-flight safety is the shared responsibility between the FAA air traffic control and aircraft operators.

The memo says the department has received many questions regarding specific areas of FAA operations and provides the following details and responses:

  • Air Traffic Controller staffing levels
    • “The FAA is experiencing labor shortages across the country, not just in Austin. 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.”
    • “Hiring a single Air Traffic Controller takes two to five months, and depending on experience, it takes another two to four years of on-the-job training to become fully certified.”
  • Ground surface detection systems
    • “There are more than 500 commercial service airports in the United States. Recent media coverage has called attention to ground radar detection that exists at 35 of the largest airports in the country. AUS does not have and cannot get this existing ground radar detection equipment, which the FAA completed deploying to airports well before AUS travel volumes reached the large-hub status we have experienced since last year.”
    • “The FAA announced on June 6, 2023, that it was soliciting technology for the next era of a surface situational awareness tool. The Department of Aviation will coordinate and collaborate with the FAA on securing new equipment for AUS.”

“While we are limited in our ability to directly resolve the challenges faced by the FAA, the Department of Aviation will remain diligent in working with the FAA and other federal agencies,” the memo said.

Airport ramp safety

According to the memo, the Department of Aviation is in the process of developing a new virtual Ramp Control Program which will “enhance our ability to uphold safety and reliability for passengers, flight crew and planes during aircraft movement on the terminal ramp.”

View the full memo and more information about the Ramp Control Program in the file below:

View more of KXAN’s coverage of the Austin airport here.