A disturbing string of dangerous incidents at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport — including near-misses and two tarmac deaths this year — has elected officials clashing with city staff over safety at an airport where passenger volumes have more than doubled in the last decade.
Now, some of those frustrations are boiling into public view.
Austin City Council Member Vanessa Fuentes, whose district includes the city-owned airport, wants city staff to let council members know immediately when something serious happens.
“They certainly can be and should be doing a job of notifying council,” Fuentes told KUT. “There have been times with the near misses between the planes where I found out through the media versus from our own airport staff. That’s not OK.”
Fuentes is spearheading a new effort to require immediate notification. The resolution already has the backing of at least five city council members. The proposal also calls on city staff to engage with the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) air traffic controllers at ABIA to discuss and mitigate safety risks.
In the more immediate future, Fuentes’ resolution directs the city manager to speed up the rollout of a ramp control program at ABIA. That’s a system to direct airplanes on the ground how to move and where to park. Right now, it’s up to individual airlines. Having a centralized ramp control system would make an on-the-ground crash between planes less likely and might even reduce some flight delays.
The airport industry professionals who work for the city insist safety is engrained in their culture. The ramp control system has been in the works since last year. Aviation staff recently hired a firm to pick up debris on the tarmac around the terminal. Airports are filled with dangerous things and staff say considering how to protect people is an inescapable part of the job.
But ABIA officials say they’re powerless to improve air safety. Air traffic control is under the exclusive jurisdiction of the FAA, the same agency that regulates the airport.
“While travelers might look to the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport as a single monolith or entity, the truth is that this airport, and all airports, are little ecosystems with different agencies and entities that oversee very specific areas of the complex operation of air travel,” airport spokesperson Sam Haynes said in an email.
This view of airport operations has frustrated officials like Fuentes, who said airport staff are “hesitant to fully take ownership over what’s going on at the airport” while still acknowledging “a lot of it is governed and regulated by our federal government.”