Air traffic controllers made record number of mistakes in 2010, data show

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 31, 2010; 12:00 AM

The air traffic controllers in the Washington region, who direct more than 1.5 million flights, have made a record number of mistakes this year, triggering cockpit collision warning systems dozens of times.

Errors recorded by air traffic controllers have increased by 51 percent nationwide, and the Federal Aviation Administration this week cautioned that warning systems aboard more than 9,000 planes may not be keeping track of all the nearby planes in busy airspace. The FAA wants to require software upgrades to ensure that the emergency units don't make mistakes that "could compromise separation of air traffic and lead to subsequent midair collisions."

Washington's regional control facility recorded its 52nd error of the year on Christmas Eve when a controller mistakenly put two Southwest Airlines 737s approaching Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport on converging courses. The facility, known as the Potomac Terminal Radar Approach Control center, recorded 21 errors in 2009. The increase corresponds with what the acting director of the center described in an internal document as "a definite increase in sloppy or poor adherence to SOP and handbook procedures."

The record number of errors - locally and nationally - reflects many instances in which planes came too close but without risk of collision and some in which fatal consequences were narrowly averted.

This month in Cincinnati, a 50-seat regional jet was instructed to land on the same runway from which a Delta 737 was taking off. And in September, two planes, one carrying 95 people, flew blindly by each other about 50 feet apart in a cloud bank because of controller errors in Minneapolis.

FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt is confident that his agency runs an "incredibly safe system," and he notes that crash fatalities involving commercial airliners are at an all-time low.

"I think that we have all come a very long way in terms of making our system as safe as it as it can be . . . and our record proves it," Babbitt said in a speech in October. "And given the collaborative approach we're now using, I expect even greater gains."

Training methods criticized

Babbitt has sought to smooth a generational transition, with the retirement of air traffic controllers who were hired in the 1980s after then-President Ronald Reagan responded to a strike by firing the entire workforce. Critics contend that mistakes have increased as less-experienced controllers have been prematurely placed in challenging situations, often receiving on-the-job training from colleagues.

A pitfall of the on-the-job approach at busy facilities was outlined last month in an all-hands memo written by Roderick Harrison, acting director of the Potomac facility. Harrison said veteran controllers were teaching inappropriate shortcuts to new hires, so "our newer controllers are developing the bad habits of some of our older . . . controllers."

"Regardless of what has happened in the past with a procedure, historical practice does not allow for deviation from the rules," Harrison wrote.

One of Babbitt's innovations is a system of self-reporting by which controllers can alert supervisors to their mistakes without fear they will be punished for them. Babbitt reasoned that the more his supervisors knew about mistakes, the better they could catch trends and find ways to strengthen the system.

As Babbitt's new Air Traffic Safety Action Program (ATSAP) was rolled out during fiscal 2010, the number of reported errors nationwide jumped by 51 percent, to 1,869.

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