Air-Traffic Error Probes Cut as U.S. Close Calls Rise

U.S. aviation regulators don’t have enough investigators to examine close calls in the skies, which have increased more than 50 percent since 2009, according to a report by the Transportation Department’s Inspector General.

The Federal Aviation Administration has reduced the number of employees reviewing these safety cases even as air-traffic errors that bring planes too close together have jumped, and as new technology is expected to uncover more such incidents, the report found.

“With the implementation of FAA’s new procedures, the number of personnel investigating losses of separation has been substantially reduced,” the agency said in the report.

The report is the latest to examine the surge in errors that let planes get too close, also known as a “loss of separation.” Those errors rose 53 percent in fiscal 2010 compared with 2009, to 1,887 from 1,234. There were 1,895 controller errors in 2011.

The FAA has maintained that most of the rise is due to improved reporting and not an actual increase in the risks of mid-air or runway collisions. The agency in recent years has started allowing controllers to self-report errors without fear of punishment, a program airlines have used for decades to identify safety issues.

The report by Assistant Inspector General Jeffrey Guzzetti found that at least some of the increase is due to an actual rise in the number of incidents.

‘Significant Challenges’

The report was released as the FAA prepares to close as many as 238 airport towers and require its 15,000 controllers to take furlough days because of automatic cuts triggered March 1 when lawmakers failed to reach a budget deal. The cuts could force airports in Chicago and Atlanta to close runways and will cause flight delays, according to the agency.

In January 2012, the FAA consolidated error investigations into three offices across the country with 16 people to do the reviews, according to the report. Previously, at least one person in each of the 300 air-traffic control facilities in the U.S. was assigned to review error reports.

The FAA faces “significant challenges” as a result of that decision, according to the report. Investigators in centralized locations may not understand each air-traffic facility’s local practices, making reviews more difficult, it said.

Automatic Tracking

The FAA is also expecting an additional jump in error reports as a new automated system goes online across the country. The system automatically tracks errors in radar rooms covering flights near airports, where such incidents were previously reported manually.

The agency plans to hire additional investigators, according to the report.

The new error-monitoring system will improve the agency’s ability to spot safety trends and respond, it said in an e-mail statement on the report.

“Validation and analysis have greatly enhanced the agency’s ability to identify and prioritize risk, then mitigate it through the most effective means available,” the FAA said in the statement.

The statement didn’t address whether the error investigators will be subject to furloughs imposed on FAA employees. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta has said the furloughs won’t compromise safety.

Safety Measure

The FAA’s system of tracking errors and encouraging employees to report issues has improved safety, Doug Church, spokesman for the Washington-based National Air Traffic Controllers Association union, said in an e-mail. FAA cuts could undermine that, Church said.

“These budget cuts may stymie the efforts of air-traffic controllers and the FAA to move safety reporting systems forward with updated technologies and procedures,” Church said.

Allowing two planes to get too close together is a key safety measure of the air-traffic system and draws attention when incidents come to light.

On July 31, a miscommunication caused a controller at Washington’s Reagan National Airport to clear two regional jets to take off toward an arriving flight.

The Inspector General’s report also found evidence that more errors are occurring than the FAA has reported.

Many incidents that controllers voluntarily disclose aren’t included in the agency’s totals because of confidentiality rules, the report found.

Unreported Errors

The Inspector General also discovered that 157 incidents in Charlotte, North Carolina, weren’t included in FAA totals.

In August 2011, 157 planes took off and landed on a runway at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport while a disabled commercial aircraft intruded into the runway’s safety zone, according to the report.

Senior FAA officials decided not to count the incidents because they concluded that safety wasn’t compromised, according to the report.

The errors that were counted in 2011 represented an increase of less than 1 percent. If the 157 incidents in Charlotte had been included, the increase would have been 9 percent.

“Until FAA takes action to determine the true magnitude of operational errors, assess their potential safety impacts, identify their root causes, and align adequate staffing for oversight, the risk of separation losses will remain a safety concern,” the report said.