‘Evasive action’: NTSB may investigate close call between Allegiant plane and a jet

The National Transportation Safety Board is gauging whether it’ll investigate an encounter in which two aircraft — an Allegiant plane and a jet — recently avoided a collision at 23,000 feet.

It would be the second federal agency looking into the matter: The Federal Aviation Administration has said it’s already reviewing the near-miss incident, which happened July 23 after the Allegiant flight took off from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

A spokesman for the NTSB said Tuesday it is “gathering information about the incident to determine if it warrants NTSB to open an investigation.” The agency conducts safety investigations for systemic safety issues, trends, and potential issues that can possibly cause a catastrophic event.

The July 23 incident, which was first reported by the South Florida Sun Sentinel and drew national attention, happened soon after Allegiant Air Flight 485 departed from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport at 12:44 p.m. bound for Blue Grass Airport in Lexington.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, an air traffic controller in the Miami Air Route Traffic Control Center “instructed” Flight 485 “to turn eastbound at an altitude of 23,000 feet when it crossed in front of a northbound Gulfstream business jet.”

Both planes received an automated alert. Both planes took “evasive action” because of that computerized alert system.

Allegiant spokeswoman Sonya Padgett said there were 175 passengers and six crew members on board the Allegiant plane.

Flightradar24, a flight-tracking service based in Stockholm, Sweden, said its data shows when the planes were alerted to change course, the aircraft were separated 2.59 miles laterally and 1,175 feet vertically. They had been on parallel tracks at about 23,000 feet.

Allegiant swiftly rose 650 feet, and the Gulfstream lowered itself 1,400 feet, said Flightradar24 spokesman Ian Petchenik.

He said although the FAA has not formally identified the automated system, the one that is used in all commercial aircraft is known as TCAS, which stands for Traffic Collision Avoidance System. The system quickly gives instructions to one pilot to go one way, and the second plane to go in the opposite direction, to avoid a tragedy.

“It’s jarring for the pilots,” said Petchenik, of the TCAS alert. “It requires immediate attention.”

While the Allegiant flight had to turn around because a flight attendant was injured in the ascent, the other jet continued on its path as scheduled to Hilton Head, S.C., Petchenik said.

A party of four was among the Allegiant passengers traveling back home after finishing up a six-day cruise to the Bahamas, Mexico and Grand Cayman, which docked at Port Everglades. They had been celebrating the 21st birthday of identical twin sisters, who were with their great-aunt and one of the sister’s boyfriend.

Kristin Thacker, 21, of Kentucky, said Tuesday the incident is “something we still talk about.”

People ask, “How was your vacation?” and she recalls telling them about her in-air scare. “My fingers were sore from holding onto the tray when we finally landed. I saw one passenger praying and lady beside me wasn’t crying, but she was shaking, uncontrollable shaking.”

Their great-aunt, Helen Abernathy, of Indiana, said the incident was “very traumatic. I couldn’t show my emotions, my feelings, because of the kids. When I got home I literally lost it.”

She said after the sudden climb the pilot announced on the intercom “we just missed another plane because of lack of communication at air traffic control.”

The FAA did not respond to repeated questions by the Sun Sentinel regarding air traffic control and whether anyone has been reassigned during the investigation.

During the flight, the pilot asked if there was any medical professional on board because a flight attendant needed assistance. Abernathy said she saw a female passenger get up and walk to the back of the plane to help. She had watched the flight attendant fall, after just fetching two wine coolers for passengers.

Abernathy said because of the weather, the fasten seatbelt light had not been turned off, possibly sparing passengers injury. A person sitting behind her had just asked permission to get up to use the bathroom, but was discouraged by a flight attendant because of the possibility of turbulence, she said.

Padgett said passengers received meal vouchers to use while they waited, as well as $100 vouchers that can be used for future travel.

Lisa J. Huriash can be reached at lhuriash@sunsentinel.com. Follow on Twitter @LisaHuriash

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