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Mistakes rise for Washington region's air traffic controllers

"In a nutshell, the two facilities are not cooperating," said a veteran FAA official familiar with the report. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak for the agency.

"Historically, the three closely spaced, large airports in the Washington area have competed," the official said. "When they consolidated radar function into one building, they expected the culture to change to one of cooperation. That did not happen; instead there are five facilities sharing the same roof, parking lot and air traffic manager, and that's about it."

He said the report validated concerns that the dispute over responsibilities could impact safety.

"What is needed is strong leadership because air traffic control is a profession dominated by strong-willed people," he said.

In fact, the review group cited a perception within TRACON that "management is passive and unresponsive to issues."

Johnson, the FAA spokeswoman, said the review team would return in October to "ensure that progress continues to be made."

"Air traffic controllers at the Potomac TRACON safely guide thousands of flights across the D.C. area every day," she said. "The FAA's quality review team visited the facility last month to look at ways to further improve safety, and action has already been taken to improve communication and some operational procedures."

Nationwide trend

The number of errors made by air traffic controllers has risen dramatically nationwide this year. FAA records are compiled for a fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. Errors by all TRACONs during the last fiscal year totaled 754. With a month left in the current fiscal year, the total has reached 1,257.

Alarmed by the national increase in incidents when onboard collision avoidance systems were activated, the National Transportation Safety Board has begun a review of almost a dozen near-collisions in midair, including a March 25 incident 24,000 feet over Maryland in which a Continental Airlines 737 came within about a mile of colliding with a Gulfstream jet. The NTSB, best known for investigating accidents, has the authority to propose regulations but not to mandate them. It has raised questions about the reliability of the FAA's reporting of close encounters in the skies.

Critics within the air traffic control system say much of the fault lies with a generational shift in the ranks of controllers, brought on by mass retirements of those hired after 1981, when President Ronald Reagan fired the nation's striking controllers. They say many of the new controllers have been thrust prematurely into high-pressure roles.

FAA Administrator J. Randolph Babbitt rejects that criticism as unfair, saying the new controllers are fully capable. He points out that plane-crash deaths are at an all-time low and that there hasn't been a major midair collision involving an airliner in two decades.

Babbitt says the spike in reported errors is the result of a new program that encourages controllers to report their own errors without fear of retribution. He issued a rule that says they should "only rarely be removed" from directing flights while their errors are investigated.

At the Potomac TRACON, however, where the number of official errors has more than doubled this fiscal year, frontline controllers were not introduced to the new, more lenient reporting system until Aug. 10, a year after the FAA says the facility began moving toward "a non-punitive [error] reporting culture."

"The increase in reported errors could be due to the increased scrutiny of the Potomac controllers by watchdogs outside the facility," the veteran FAA official said. "Similar peaks occurred in New York and Dallas-Fort Worth when those facilities were investigated. If there's [already] an increase at Potomac, under the new lenient system, we could see the numbers of reported mistakes soar."

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