Flight-Plan Miscues Imperil U.S. Air Safety, Watchdog Says

  • Duplicate flight plans let commercial pilots veer off course
  • FAA grapples with `increasing trend' of mistaken filings

The aviation system is plagued by erroneous data on flight plans that may confuse pilots and controllers, putting safety at risk, according to an U.S. investigative agency’s report to the White House and Congress.

Hundreds of times a day, multiple routes filed for the same flight can exist in the Federal Aviation Administration’s computers, which has led pilots to mistakenly fly off course, the Office of Special Counsel said in its report. The flaw was identified by five FAA controllers in Detroit who sought whistle-blower protection from the office.

The flaw, which FAA has been attempting to correct since 2012, was confirmed by the Department of Transportation and the special counsel, according to documents released Tuesday.

“The investigation found that duplicate flight plans introduce a safety risk into the air traffic control system with potentially conflicting information being acted upon by controllers and pilots,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a letter to special counsel in May 2014.

Earlier attempts by the FAA to fix the issue “had little impact,” in part because senior officials didn’t recognize its significance, the agency told investigators.

Increasing Trend

The agency renewed its efforts in May 2014 and developed a plan to address the issue, the agency said in a statement. In January, the FAA determined that the safety risks of multiple flight plans was low, according to the statement.

A December notice to airlines and other flight operators from the FAA said the agency had found an “increasing trend” of mistaken flight plans and urged them to take more care when filing updates.

Multiple flight plans occur when a last-minute change is made to an existing route without deleting the earlier plan, according to the FAA. The Office of Special Counsel and the FAA’s own investigation found this happens because the aviation agency doesn’t have rules or enforcement tools to prevent duplicate filings.

In one incident, an Boeing Co. 777 leaving New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport in July 2014 began flying an unapproved route because airline dispatchers had altered its flight path without properly notifying the FAA, according to the agency’s December notice.

The Office of Special Counsel investigates allegations of misconduct from federal employees who fear retribution if they come forward.

“The whistleblowers in Detroit deserve our deep gratitude.” the office’s chief Carolyn Lerner said in an e-mailed release. “While more work needs to be done, their actions reignited efforts to address the problems.”

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