NTSB begins to consider the probable cause of a near collision between FedEx and Southwest planes

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Investigators said Thursday that an incoming FedEx cargo plane came within 200 feet of hitting a Southwest Airlines jet in Austin, Texas, last year after both were cleared to use the same runway.

The FedEx co-pilot spotted the Southwest plane at the last minute and the cargo plane crew stopped and flew over the top of the Southwest plane, which was carrying 128 passengers and crew.

“This incident could have been catastrophic without the heroic actions of the FedEx crew,” National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy said at the start of the panel’s hearing on the close call.

The five-member safety council heard descriptions of the incident from investigators and was expected to vote on a probable cause for the incident later Thursday.

The FedEx plane was making its final approach to land at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport when it nearly struck the top of the Southwest Boeing 737, which was roaring down the runway for takeoff in dense fog.

The air traffic controller said he expected the Southwest plane — which he couldn’t see because of the fog — would take off faster. In retrospect, the controller said, he could have made the Southwest crew wait until the FedEx Boeing 767 landed.

The captain of the FedEx plane told investigators he was irritated and perplexed when he heard the controller clear the Southwest plane to take off from the same runway he was approaching.

The incident was one of several close calls last year that prompted the Federal Aviation Administration to convene a “safety summit” of aviation industry participants.

FAA officials have insisted that American aviation has never been safer. However, a panel of independent experts concluded last year that the safety margin is shrinking and that the FAA needs better staff and technology to manage the nation’s airspace.

The NTSB plans to release its report on the Austin incident in several weeks.