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New Counting Methods Will Lead to More Air-Traffic Errors

U.S. aviation regulators said they expect the number of reported air-traffic errors to climb this year as they introduce a computerized system to track instances of planes coming too close together.

More reported errors won’t mean there are higher risks of planes colliding, David Grizzle, head of the the Federal Aviation Administration’s air-traffic division, said today in a briefing.

“At the same time that incidents will be going up, risks will be going down,” Grizzle said.

There were 1,895 controller errors in the year ended Sept. 30, compared with 1,887 in the previous fiscal year, Grizzle said. Errors climbed 81 percent from 2007 through 2010, according to FAA data.

Incidents in which planes came closest together continued to climb, according to the data. They went from 43 in 2010 to 55 last year. Since 2009, these errors are up 49 percent, according to the agency.

Errors are defined as incidents in which two aircraft being directed by a controller come closer together than rules allow. At high altitudes, for example, planes must stay at least five miles apart horizontally or 1,000 feet apart vertically.

GAO Report

The number of near-collisions on runways were about the same -- 954 last year compared with 966 in 2010. Events that came closest to a collision rose from four in 2010 to five last year. That was fewer than the nine such incidents in 2009, according to the agency.

The FAA has automatic error reporting in its centers that oversee high-altitude traffic. This year it began putting an error-detection system into about 180 facilities overseeing flights at lower altitudes near airports, Grizzle said.

Since 2008, the FAA has revamped how it looks at air- traffic safety and installing automatic error detection is part of that continuing effort, he said.

The agency adopted a program that had been used by airlines for decades to encourage pilots to report errors and safety concerns without fear of punishment. Controllers now have such a program and the agency recently expanded it to include technicians who work on air-traffic equipment, according to Grizzle.

While the agency can’t prove it, officials suspect that the new program has led to more reporting of errors, he said. “We are moving from an events-based, reactive approach to safety analysis and a risk-based, proactive approach,” Grizzle said.

Pay Incentives Changed

The data “validates our long-held belief that our reporting system works and is helping to keep American aviation the safest in the world,” Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union representing about 15,000 controllers, said an an e-mail.

The FAA’s efforts were partly responsible for rising error totals in recent years, a study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office last year concluded.

At the same time, “trends may also indicate an increase in the actual occurrence of incidents,” according to the report. Errors at FAA facilities where computers automatically counted them rose 38 percent in 2010 compared with the previous year, according to the GAO.

In addition to encouraging reporting, the FAA has centralized analysis of potential errors and revamped how managers’ bonuses are computed, so that pay is no longer tied to lowering error totals.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alan Levin in Washington at alevin24@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at bkohn2@bloomberg.net

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