Air-controller errors in Philly up in 2010
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Reports of mistakes by air-traffic controllers at Philadelphia International Airport almost doubled in 2010, mirroring a national trend of controller errors rising sharply, even though aviation safety has never been better and midair collisions are extremely rare.
In airspace around Philadelphia, there were 20 operation errors last year -- meaning aircraft came too close together. There were just 11 in 2009, according to Federal Aviation Administration data.
In the first 51/2 months of 2011, 10 errors were logged on the ground and up to 12,000 feet around Philadelphia.
The Inquirer obtained the operational error and deviation reports for 2009 and 2010 under a Freedom of Information Act request. The records, through June 16 of this year, do not include transcripts of conversations between pilots and controllers.
Only two incidents, involving multiple mistakes and aircraft, were categorized as the most serious: Category A.
Most were classified as B and C errors, and some were not categorized -- including a medevac helicopter that cruised too close to a Southwest Airlines plane on takeoff.
Controller errors are mainly a failure to keep proper distance between airplanes. FAA regulations require that planes be separated by three miles laterally and 1,000 feet in altitude -- and five miles apart in wake turbulence, the unstable air behind a larger, heavy jet.
Even if a controller makes a mistake, commercial airliners, corporate jets, and military planes have had collision-avoidance alarms since the 1990s. The alarm sounds in the cockpit when another aircraft is too close and tells the pilots to climb or descend to avoid an accident.
According to error reports, pilots often took evasive action, even if a controller did not catch what was happening.
In Philadelphia, some errors occurred when the tower changed runway direction for arriving and departing flights or made a runway change because of maintenance. Mistakes also were made when controller functions in the radar room were combined, which is a common practice and considered operationally safe.
Planes sometimes got too close when pilots, in helicopters and private planes, failed to heed or respond to a controller's order -- such as the medevac helicopter that twice did not respond to a tower controller's warning that a Southwest Airlines plane was less than a mile away.
Philadelphia has never had a collision on the ground. The most recent midair collision in Philadelphia -- a memorable one -- occurred in April 1991, when a helicopter collided with a small plane carrying U.S. Sen. John Heinz over Merion Elementary School.
The plane carrying Mr. Heinz reported trouble with its landing gear. Two pilots in a nearby helicopter volunteered to fly near to take a closer look. While the helicopter hovered below the airplane, the two aircraft collided, killing the senator, four pilots, and two children in the schoolyard below. The tragedy was the result of action by both crews and did not involve air-traffic control.
Nationally, in the 12 months ended Sept. 30, 2010, there were 1,887 operation errors, according to the FAA's tally. During the same period a year earlier there were 1,233 errors, and the year before, 1,349. Before 2008, the FAA used a different counting method, so a lengthier pattern is not available.
The FAA attributes the higher number of reported errors to better reporting, including a new nonpunitive system that encourages controllers to voluntarily self-report. New technology monitors aircraft electronically and automatically reports if planes get too close.
First Published September 22, 2011 12:00 am