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Mistakes rise for Washington region's air traffic controllers

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 30, 2010; 11:24 PM

Onboard systems intended to keep airliners from colliding in midair have been triggered more than 45 times this year in the skies over Washington as air traffic controllers have made dangerous mistakes at a record-setting pace.

With 38 officially reported errors this year, the controllers who guide planes to and from the region's airports already have exceeded annual error totals for every year since their facility began operation in 2003. The Federal Aviation Administration dispatched a safety review team to the Warrenton facility last month after a controller error resulted in a United Airlines flight narrowly missing a collision with a 22-seat Gulfstream business jet. One of the United passengers, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), contacted the FAA.

The review team found that "more than 45 such events have been documented this calendar year" in which the avoidance alert systems have been triggered in the airspace controlled by the Potomac Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON), according to an internal FAA summary.

"Onboard collision avoidance systems give aircraft an extra margin of safety," Sasha J. Johnson, an FAA spokeswoman, said Monday. "However, the alert does not always mean that there was a loss of required separation between aircraft or that an unsafe situation exists."

Sensenbrenner's airliner came within 15 seconds of colliding with the smaller jet before onboard warning systems ordered the pilots to take evasive action, according to FAA documents. The pilot of the larger jet reported seeing the smaller plane pass just behind him, and according to an air traffic recording, he said, "That was close."

Two of the closest calls this month involved four airplanes, carrying a total of 589 people, and included one incident in which a Delta 737 was turned into the potentially deadly turbulent wake of a United 757 as the two planes flew along the Potomac River on final approach to Reagan National Airport.

Although few of those events were as harrowing as Sensenbrenner's experience, the review team said the controllers, who guide as many as 2,000 planes in the region each day, were being instructed to allow additional space between airplanes in TRACON airspace. The onboard systems, required on all planes carrying 19 or more passengers, kick in and order pilots to take evasive action when their sensors indicate a potential midair collision.

The Sensenbrenner incident on June 28 was recorded as the 23rd error of the year by Potomac TRACON. Since that date, controllers there officially have reported 15 more mistakes, including two this month that were ranked in preliminary internal reports as "category A, yellow." Only a "category A, red" is considered more serious, usually involving an actual crash or act of terrorism.

The first incident involved the two planes on approach to National. In the second, a preliminary report said that a controller jumbled the call signs of two planes approaching Dulles International Airport and directed a United Airlines 757 into the path of a United Express Saab 340. A later report assigned blame to the 757 pilot as well.

Five facilities in one

The consolidated TRACON that opened in 2003 centralized responsibility for three major airports - Dulles, National and Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport - and smaller operations at Andrews Air Force Base and Richmond International Airport. The control towers at each of those facilities direct planes on the ground and in the immediate area around the airport.

TRACON controllers take over once planes are airborne and guide them until they reach cruising altitude, where another group of controllers takes charge for the long haul. TRACON also directs inbound planes, releasing them to the tower when they are within seven miles of landing.

Among the more than 30 issues raised in the report by the "quality control" team was concern that TRACON controllers and tower controllers at Dulles were not playing by the same set of rules, with TRACON using the official playbook as a flexible guideline while Dulles used it as a mandate from which they "should only rarely deviate." The playbook establishes 14 approaches for managing arrivals and departures at the airport.

"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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