FAA sends experts to review safety rules at air traffic center

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday sent a team of experts to review procedures at the air traffic control center that directs all flights in the Washington region after the facility recorded its 22nd potentially dangerous mistake last week.

With another federal agency -- the National Transportation Safety Board -- already investigating mistakes made by air traffic controllers nationwide, the FAA told its employees in a conference call this week that it was launching a new effort to make air travel more safe.

"This spring we had several close calls that got everybody's attention," said Robert Tarter, vice president of the FAA's Office of Safety, in the conference call, "and I think that's the thing that really keyed us into taking a look at some of the risks, [to] try to identify what we're missing."

The team was sent after The Washington Post reported Monday about an incident in which a 120-seat United Airlines Airbus 319 narrowly avoided colliding with a 22-seat Gulfstream business jet June 28. The United flight from Chicago was being guided by an air traffic controller toward a landing at Reagan National Airport when an onboard collision-avoidance system warned that it was headed for a midair encounter with the Gulfstream under the direction of another controller.

The United pilot reported pulling up hard and then seeing the Gulfstream pass just behind him.

There had been 21 other incidents this year in which planes being directed by controllers at the Warrenton center invaded the air space of other aircraft. FAA regulations require that planes be separated by at least three miles or 1,000 feet in altitude.

Among the close calls attributed to controller error were a Continental 737 waiting to land at National that came within 3,900 feet of a military plane that had taken off from Andrews Air Force Base. In addition, an 80-passenger shuttle jet taking off from Dulles International Airport was turned directly into the path of a commuter jet on track to land at National; they continued on that course until onboard collision-avoidance systems went off. A JetBlue Airways 150-passenger Airbus was directed into the path of a Beechcraft charter jet as both were making final approach to Dulles; they passed within about 3,600 feet of each other.

The FAA attributes the national increase in the number of errors by controllers to a new approach to reporting that relaxes punitive action against controllers so as to encourage them to report their mistakes. That new policy spells out that controllers should "only rarely be removed" from directing air traffic if they make errors.

The FAA said Wednesday that it would hold a meeting of top management and safety experts in Washington on Aug. 17 to address urgent safety problems. An internal FAA safety team is reviewing operations at the Potomac facility to make sure all procedures are being followed properly.

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