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FedEx, Southwest jets came scarily close for 30 seconds in Texas

Feb. 6, 2023 Updated Mon., Feb. 6, 2023 at 11:45 a.m.

By Alan Levin and Mary Schlangenstein Washington Post

A FedEx widebody cargo jet came within several hundred feet of colliding with a Southwest plane in Austin, Texas, early Saturday and the two planes remained in proximity for at least 30 seconds, flight data show.

The FedEx Boeing 767-300, which had been cleared to land on the same Austin-Bergstrom International Airport runway where the Southwest 737-700 was taking off in heavy fog, aborted its touchdown and began climbing above the smaller plane. The details, gleaned from a Bloomberg review of tracking data from Flightradar24, offer new insight into the seriousness of Saturday’s incident, which didn’t result in any injuries.

At one point, the two planes were separated by less than 25 feet laterally as the FedEx jet flew above the Southwest aircraft, which had reached a speed of about 150 miles per hour while it accelerated for takeoff, according to the data. Seconds later, as the Southwest plane lifted off, the two were less than 50 feet apart laterally and about 625 feet apart in height.

“No question the airplanes were much too close,” said John Cox, a former airline pilot who is now a safety consultant. “It’s a very rare event to have these airliners so close.”

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board announced on Saturday it was investigating the incident, which occurred at about 6:40 a.m. local time. It’s the second serious runway near-collision in recent weeks. The Federal Aviation Administration is also reviewing the two incidents.

It’s difficult at this early stage in the investigation to determine the precise risk of the two planes colliding, Cox said. He praised the FedEx pilots for aborting their landing seconds before touchdown, apparently realizing that the other jet was on the runway.

As the FedEx jet neared the runway a voice said on the air-traffic radio frequency, “Southwest abort.” But the pilots on the passenger plane continued. A recording of the air-traffic radio calls was posted on the website.

“FedEx is on the go,” one of the cargo jet pilots radioed the tower moments later, using aviation terminology for calling off a landing.

A controller earlier had cleared the Southwest jet to take off and warned pilots on both planes there was nearby traffic. It wasn’t clear why both planes were directed toward the runway at the same time.

The two planes remained within 550 feet of each other laterally for 33 seconds, according to the Flightradar24 data, as the FedEx jet climbed slightly faster along the runway. Typically, planes would be separated by about 3.5 miles laterally and 1,000 feet vertically while flying near an airport.

Southwest Flight 708 arrived in Cancún about two hours later, according to Flightradar24. The FedEx jet circled the airport and landed in Austin about 12 minutes after the incident.

A Southwest spokesman said the airline didn’t have additional information to share on the incident. There were 123 passengers and five crew members aboard, according to the company.

A FedEx spokesman referred questions to the FAA and NTSB.

On Jan. 13, an American Airlines widebody jet rolled across a runway at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York as a Delta Air Lines plane accelerated for takeoff.

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