Bart Jansen USA TODAY
Watchdog: Air-traffic Errors a 'Major Safety Concern'
March 5, 2013
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  • By: Bart Jansen

    WASHINGTON — A government watchdog says much of the jump in air-traffic control mistakes several years ago was caused by actual mistakes rather than just a new reporting system the Federal Aviation Administration adopted.

    The FAA had blamed a 53% increase from 2009 to 2010 in planes getting too close together to the new Air Traffic Safety Action Program, which encouraged controllers to report mistakes without fear of punishment. The goal of the new reporting system was to prevent future mistakes.

    Yet Jeffrey Guzzetti, the Department of Transportation’s assistant inspector general for aviation, says that the FAA’s automated system for detecting operational errors had a 39% increase at that time.

    “This suggests that a portion of the overall increase is due to more errors actually occurring, rather than being attributable entirely to improved reporting,” Guzzetti says in a report released on Monday.

    He says that close encounters “continue to be a major air safety concern, particularly in light of dramatic increases in their occurrence.”

    Also of concern, the report says, are so-called near misses, including “a near mid-air collision” near New York City in January 2011 involving a jetliner and two military aircraft that flew within a mile of each other.

    The FAA responded in a statement Monday that the agency is committed to safe operations. In January 2012, the agency significantly changed the way it reports and analyzes incidents where planes get too close together.

    “As a result, the FAA has seen a dramatic increase in report, and is now collecting unprecedented amounts of qualitative data,” the agency said. The additional information “greatly enhanced the agency’s ability to identify and prioritize risk, then mitigate it through the most effective means available, including training, procedures and technological improvements.”

    The National Air Traffic Controllers Association said Monday the voluntary system for reporting errors works in cooperation with the FAA and pilots “to keep our nation’s aviation system the safest in the world” by understanding where improvements can be made.

    But the union representing controllers warned that federal spending cuts that went into effect Friday could hurt that progress because “these budget cuts may stymie the efforts of air traffic controllers and the FAA to move safety reporting systems forward with updated technologies and procedures.”

    The previous jump in air-traffic control errors cited by the inspector general was startling. The 1,234 events in 2009 rose to 1,887 in 2010. The number remained steady at 1,895 in 2011. The amount reported last year hasn’t been released yet.

    Among regional control centers, Southern California accounted for 156 of the incidents in the increase from 2009 to 2010. The Dallas region had 59 incidents and the New York region had 35 of the incidents.

    The California incidents included 147 landings that FAA reclassified as errors. That’s after revoking a waiver that had allowed planes to land at the same time closer than normally allowed, according to the inspector general. Those incidents accounted for 23% of the increase over that time.

    The FAA has 16 staffers in investigate the “high number” of mistakes, with plans to hire more, the report says. And that presents “staffing challenges,” the report says.

    In response, the FAA says it’s developed action plans to reduce the number of high-risk events and more steps are planned this year.

    FAA has completed the most significant improvements in control safety in 30 years, including the program for voluntary reporting of incidents and electronic detection,according to Clayton Foushee, director of FAA’s office of audit and evaluation. More initiatives are planned this year, he wrote in reply to the audit.