Federal data confirm rise in air traffic control errors

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WASHINGTON -- Federal investigators confirmed Monday that errors by the nation's air traffic controllers have increased sharply, challenging the Federal Aviation Administration's contention that most of the jump was due to better data collection.

The U.S. Department of Transportation inspector general, in an audit released Monday, said, "The increase in reported errors was linked, in part, to a rise in actual errors rather than increased reporting."

The report renews concerns about aviation mistakes at a time when the FAA has warned that sequestration may require controller furloughs and closing control towers at smaller airports.

An official familiar with the report said it raises questions about the manner in which the FAA collects reports and classifies the mistakes made by the controllers responsible for safe air travel. "The report is kind of an indictment of how they categorize and deal with these errors," said the official, who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak publicly.

The inspector general's report cited a 95 percent increase in controller errors reported in 2010 at the facility that supervises air traffic into Washington's three major airports -- Reagan National Airport, Dulles International Airport and Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport. It was the fifth-highest increase between 2009 and 2010 in the nation, outranked only by error increases in Southern California, Central Florida, Houston and Miami.

The inspector general was asked to review the FAA's error-reporting process by Congress after testimony last April caused concerns about the agency's accuracy. That hearing followed reports that raised questions about the accounting, and after the National Transportation Safety Board began formal investigation of incidents in which planes came dangerously close to each other while in flight.

The FAA issued a statement in response to Monday's inspector general's report, reiterating its position that better data collection caused a "dramatic increase" in the controller errors reported. But it said the increase came last year, two years after the period studied by the inspector general.

The majority of errors do not put passengers at great risk. But there were enough serious incidents that the NTSB stepped in to investigate. The incidents included a Boeing 737 nearly hitting a helicopter while taking off from Houston; a Boeing 777 skimming under a small plane on takeoff from San Francisco; a Boeing 737 nearly colliding with a Cessna in Burbank, Calif.; an Airbus 319 passing 100 feet above the path of a Boeing 747 taking off in Anchorage; and an Embraer 135 taking off from Chicago using evasive action to avoid an inbound twin-engine prop plane.

It also looked into an incident near Reagan National Airport in which an airliner carrying Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., swerved to avoid another jet after the encounter activated the on-board collision avoidance system. The NTSB also reviewed an incident in which a White House plane carrying first lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, the vice president's wife, was allowed to stray too close to another plane's turbulence.

Managing millions of flights a year is a complex business. Sometimes when a plane gets closer than the stipulated safe distance -- generally three miles or 1,000 feet of altitude apart -- it isn't counted as an error. In some cases, letting two planes get too close while on parallel courses in the same direction might not be deemed an error.

There were 1,234 recorded operational errors in fiscal 2009, and although there were more than a million fewer flights in 2010, the number reported errors jumped to a record 1,887.

In the past, controllers faced punishment for such errors, and supervisors recognized that it was in their best interest to keep a lid on the number of errors reported. Now, controllers are encouraged to report their own errors without fear of retribution. The FAA said it moved to what it calls a nonpunitive culture for reporting errors by air-traffic controllers for a strategic reason: Implementing a revolutionary $40 billion system known as NextGen requires that they first need a complete picture of how mistakes are being made.

The new system has coincided with a spike in the number of reported incidents. When that trend began, the FAA attributed the increase in reported errors to the new reporting system. The FAA backed off that contention and acknowledged that most self-reported mistakes were not included in the official count, but agency officials continued to say the self-reporting program caused error numbers to spike.



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