U.S. air traffic controllers record 51% rise in operational errors

The traffic control tower at Dulles Airport offers a 360 degree view of the facility.
The traffic control tower at Dulles Airport offers a 360 degree view of the facility. (Margaret Thomas - Washington Post)
By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 9, 2010; 5:03 PM

The number of potentially dangerous mistakes recorded by air traffic controllers, who direct an average of 190,000 daily flights nationwide, has jumped by 51 percent in the past year.

The increase reflects a fraction of the overall number of errors in fiscal 2010 because dozens of them each week are not included in the official record under a new system that encourages controllers to report their mistakes.

The vast majority of the 1,869 operational errors were recorded by controllers who direct planes below cruising altitude as they take off or prepare to land. Those controllers accounted for 1,390 recorded errors, a 58 percent increase from the previous year, including 333 of the more-serious "category A or B" mistakes, a 36 percent increase.

The number of errors by controllers who handle flights in and out of Reagan National and the region's two other major airports - Dulles International and Baltimore-Washington International Marshall - almost doubled in the past year, rising to 41.

The Federal Aviation Administration says that its count of recorded incidents has increased because of better reporting procedures and that recent history indicates that air travel is safer than ever.

"We are actively encouraging air traffic controllers to report errors they make and any safety issues they see," said FAA spokeswoman Sasha J. Johnson. "We anticipated an increase in errors because we have multiple error-reporting systems in place."

The issue of safety in the skies over the nation's busy airports came to public attention in June after a United Airlines Airbus 319 carrying Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) narrowly avoided colliding with a 22-seat business jet on approach to National.

Sensenbrenner, who complained to the FAA after the June 28 incident, was frustrated to learn this week that the FAA did not take corrective action until Aug. 2, when it issued a "Lessons Learned" bulletin to controllers at the Potomac Terminal Radar Approach Control facility in Warrenton, according to Sensenbrenner staff member Todd Washam.

"It takes them 36 hours to get [Sensenbrenner] a briefing book after the incident but five weeks to send out a memo about the lessons learned to prevent this?" Washam said.

Lives at risk

It has been a generation since a midair collision resulted in major loss of life, and the FAA has developed an intricate lattice of procedures and electronic safety measures to keep planes at a safe distance. It doesn't always work, and when it fails, lives are put at risk.

In the past year 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.

Combined, the airliners involved in those five incidents carried 793 passengers.

In two recent incidents, an Embraer 145 and a twin-engine Beechcraft narrowly missed colliding Wednesday over Wichita, Kan., and last week , a pair of Boeing 737s were separated by onboard collision-avoidance systems as one approached and the other departed Phoenix. The initial FAA reports labeled them as "category A" incidents that posed a "medium or high" risk of collision.

There are a number of ways that airborne mishaps - both controller and pilot errors - are recorded. Some are picked up by computer; others are observed by supervisors; and controllers and pilots register complaints. If review confirms a loss of separation - FAA regulations require that planes be separated by at least three miles in horizontal distance or 1,000 feet in altitude - it is logged in the official count for the facility as an operational error or a pilot error.

Changing the culture

Not all errors are included. For three years, the FAA has been rolling out a program that encourages controllers to report their mistakes by shielding them from punitive action. The agency hopes that self-reporting will provide data on errors that might otherwise have escaped notice, providing a more complete picture and exposing systemic problems that need to be addressed.

Over an eight-week period this summer, an average of 68 self-reported separation errors were recorded each week, FAA documents show. Under an agreement with the controllers union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), those "sole-source," previously "unknown" mistakes don't make the official record.

"The unknown sole-sources are not counted in the system," said Steve Hansen, who heads the NATCA's safety committee. "We want to resolve issues, not punish people."

Hansen said that in the past, controllers who made mistakes were denied pay raises, suspended or, in extreme cases, fired.

"You could lose money for a simple, human mistake," he said. "We're just now coming out of a pretty punitive culture. Our reporting [of errors] is up because we are way more comfortable with the system."

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