WASHINGTON – After decades of steady improvements in air travel, a new report from the Federal Aviation Administration shows a surge in near-collisions between commercial airliners and drones.
Already this month, close calls have been reported from New Jersey to Kansas to Hawaii.
Since July 1, commercial airlines, private pilots and air-traffic controllers have reported 25 incidents to the FAA in which small drones came dangerously close to crashing into larger planes, according to the report.
Many of the calls happened during takeoff and landings at some of the nation’s busiest airports including New York’s LaGuardia Airport, Washington’s Reagan National Airport and Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia. The spike in near collisions presents a new threat to aviation safety after years of improvement, the report says.
In one case, air-traffic controllers at LaGuardia reported that Republic Airlines Flight 6230 was “almost hit” by a drone flying at an altitude of 4,000 feet as a passenger plane was trying to land.
On Sept.8, three different regional airlines – Express Jet, Chautauqua and Pinnacle – reported “very close calls” with a drone within minutes of each other as they were preparing to land at LaGuardia.
In many cases, the drones weigh less than 10 pounds, are plastic, have cameras and are measure just a few feet in diameter. Safety experts caution that the drones could get sucked into a jet engine or hit a plane’s propeller.
“The potential for catastrophic damage is certainly there,” Fred Roggero, a retired Air Force major general who was in charge of aviation safety investigations for the service and now serves as a consultant to companies seeking to fly drones commercially, told The Washington Post.
Under current FAA regulations, small drones are allowed to legally fly under 400 feet and five miles from major airports or other restricted airspace.
In 2012, Congress ordered the FAA to safely integrate drones into national airspace but the process has been slow and is expected to take several years.
The Washington Post reports that since 2012, the FAA has been struggling to keep up with the thousands of small drones that have been sold in the United States over the past three years. The FAA lacks the manpower to police airports for the drones and only a handful of them and their operators have been apprehended across the country, the paper reports.