Aviation safety technology that helps prevent runway near-collisions should be deployed at more US airports, the government’s top transportation-safety official said, citing early findings from probes into a spate of incidents this year. 

The systems, which warn air-traffic controllers when planes or vehicles get too close to each other on runways, are in place at just 43 US airports. “That’s not enough,” National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy said Tuesday in an interview at a forum on airport safety hosted by the agency.  

National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy

Some of the most severe incidents occurred at airports without a system tracking planes on or near the ground, Homendy said, citing investigators at her agency who are looking into the jump in near-misses.  

Years of inadequate funding for aviation safety has undercut the government’s ability to field the technology, said Michael McCormick, who previously served at the Federal Aviation Administration’ Air Traffic Organization. The agency would have added it at more airports if it had the money, he said on a panel at the event.  

“Left to unlimited resources, they would definitely have been promulgated throughout the system,” said McCormick, who is now a professor at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. “So yes, funding is an issue.”

Serious incidents on US runways surged early this year. There were at least eight cases involving airliners rated as high risk by the FAA or that prompted an investigation by the NTSB. That’s about twice the average annual number in the previous five years. 

Homendy declined to discuss whether patterns have emerged in the NTSB’s ongoing probes, but said the use of warning technology is one of the areas under focus by the agency. 

The FAA said earlier on Tuesday that there were signs incidents had declined in March and April. “Our efforts are working, but we must remain vigilant and continue to find ways to prevent close calls from happening at all,” acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen said in a statement.

The agency also announced that it has awarded about $100 million to airports in the past two years to make various improvements to reduce the risks that planes will collide on the ground. The money will help to move runways and taxiways, add lighting and improve marking. 

The FAA received about $18 billion in 2022, but the agency’s funding has been plagued in recent years by uncertainties related to government shutdowns and political warring in Congress.