Inspector general faults FAA amnesty program

Air traffic controllers who admit to falling asleep or playing video games when they should be directing airliners can escape punishment under a reporting system that the U.S. Transportation Department’s inspector general says is seriously flawed.

“The intent of the reporting program is to improve aviation safety, not to provide amnesty to controllers who like to watch movies or take a nap while on the job,” said House Transportation Committee Chairman John L. Mica (R-Fla.). “Controllers must conduct themselves in a professional manner.”

The inspector general also found that controllers responsible for plane crashes can escape the Federal Aviation Administration’s retribution if they own up to their mistakes.

The inspector general’s 28-page report came at the request of Mica and Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Tom Petri (R-WI) after a hearing they held in April to delve into the increasing number of reported controller errors.

The report this week raises questions about whether the FAA’s desire to collect the best possible data on mistakes has protected controllers from punishment for misdeeds such as sleeping on the job, which in a few high-profile cases lead to firings last year. It says controller mistakes are a “significant safety concern.”

The FAA and the controllers’ union, which worked together to create the reporting system, defended that approach.

“No other safety program has identified and fixed more local and systemic problems,” said Steve Hansen, who chairs the National Air Traffic Controllers Association’s safety committee. “The [FAA] now has more and better-detailed safety data than before. The high level of participation shows controllers see the program as a way to improve safety.”

The FAA, in a statement, defended the Air Traffic Safety Action Program, which renders controllers immune from punishment if they report their mistakes.

“The FAA is improving the program based on recommendations the IG’s office has made,” the FAA statement said.

In a written response to the inspector general, the FAA said it was taking action to comply with eight of the report’s 10 recommendations.

The major point of disagreement was over whether ATSAP should shield a pilot who admits to a mistake that may have caused a plane crash. The FAA said immunity is beneficial because controllers “might be more accurate and candid in an ATSAP report than they might be in interviews with either NTSB or FAA.”

The inspector general countered: “Aviation professionals should understand that it is their responsibility to be candid with a federal investigator after an accident.”

“FAA should take seriously the recommendations by the IG and make needed reforms to strengthen the program, and we will be working with the agency to ensure that this happens,” Petri said. The overwhelming majority of mistakes made by controllers do not put passengers at risk, but even during the safest era in U.S. commercial aviation history, there have been numerous occasions when controller mistakes have allowed planes to come dangerously close to each other.

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

Some near collisions came under review by the National Transportation Safety Board, including: a Boeing 737 nearly hit a helicopter while taking off from Houston; a Boeing 777 skimmed under a small plane on takeoff from San Francisco; a Boeing 737 nearly collided with a Cessna in Burbank, Calif.; an Airbus 319 passed 100 feet above the path of a Boeing 747 taking off in Anchorage; and an Embraer 135 taking off from Chicago took evasive action to avoid an in-bound twin-engine prop plane.

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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