AUSTIN (KXAN) — An Allegiant Air flight preparing to land at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport Monday night had to “initiate a climb due to a small aircraft in proximity,” the Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement to KXAN. The FAA has opened an investigation into the incident.
The FAA said the closest proximity between the aircrafts was 1.6 miles horizontally and 200 feet vertically.
A passenger on Allegiant flight No. 1500 told KXAN the plane “took a very extreme dip down, causing incredible pressure inside the cabin.”
“There was just an extreme pressure in the cabin. My head felt like it was being squished really hard,” she added.
The passenger, who requested anonymity, said they were traveling from Cincinnati (CVG) to AUS and landed around 8:30 p.m. Monday.
“There were definitely some people freaking out. I looked over at the guy next to me and the lady across the row, we were all just staring at each other,” the passenger said. “My son grabbed my hand, really scared.”
She said after they landed, the pilot explained what had happened.
“The pilot told us that they had been cleared by air traffic control to take their descent into Austin… But he said there was a small plane that was close to us. And they had to, unfortunately, make a quick decision,” the passenger recalled.
“Kind of scary to think like we could have collided with somebody,” she added.
An AUS spokesperson said investigations of incidents between aircrafts were handled by the NTSB.
The National Transportation Safety Board said there was no information available at this time.
Allegiant said they didn’t know about the incident when KXAN reached out, then later said it’s their policy to not comment on an active investigation.
“We have no reports of a situation like that on Flight No. 1500,” Allegiant told KXAN in a statement.
Context from an aviation expert
Carson Pearce, aviation lead at Texas A&M University Central Texas, said the small airplane’s pilot could have been distracted.
“It could have been a student on a cross country, that cross country flight that was going into some very busy airspace, we don’t know,” he said.
But Pearce said this could be a deeper problem about understaffed control towers.
He pointed to a U.S. Department of Transportation report released just last week, slamming the FAA for not having an adequate plan to address their staffing shortage.
The report found that 77% of critical towers are staffed below the agency’s 85% threshold, and due to a pause in controller training during COVID, “cannot ensure it will successfully train enough controllers in the short term.”
According to the FAA Air Traffic Controller Workforce Plan, the target staffing standards for air traffic controllers at AUS is 51 employees. AUS currently has 39.
It coincides when the number of passengers keep increasing, Pearce said– with AAA projecting a record-breaking 4th of July travel weekend.
“We’re in a period of time in aviation in America right now; COVID is over with, people are flying like nobody’s business; small aircraft are flying, jet aircraft are flying; there’s a shortage of air traffic controllers,” Pearce explained. “And we just need to keep our head on a swivel.”
He said there’s another layer of protection in addition to air traffic controllers: The FAA started requiring all aircraft to have a piece of equipment called Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADSB).
The equipment sends a satellite signal to tell other aircraft where your aircraft is in relation to them.
“And so, the big question that I would like to ask if I were investigating this… is, ‘Did you get a traffic alert from your ADSB?'” Pearce said.
He said small airplanes aren’t required to have an ADSB that receives other planes’ signals, but he said the Allegiant plane probably did have both capabilities.
Whatever the cause of her experience was, the anonymous passenger said she wants it figured out– and resolved– before her next summer trip.
“It would be nice to not have this kind of problem and not worry about being collided into when we’re on our way to vacation,” the passenger said.
Near collision at AUS
In February, the FAA said it was looking into an incident where a plane coming in to land almost collided with another aircraft cleared to take off at AUS.
It happened when a FedEx cargo plane nearly landed on a runway where a Southwest flight was preparing to take off. An animation created by Flightradar24 shows how close the planes were crashing.
But the FedEx pilot stopped the landing and “initiated a climb out,” FAA officials said in a statement. The plane rose up again just before it was set to land.
“At the closest point horizontally, the aircraft were less than 1000 feet apart, but we do not have same-time data points in order to calculate an exact figure,” Flightradar24 wrote.