Investigate spike in controller errors: DoT

A senior aviation watchodg is warning that the sharp rise in mistakes made by US air traffic controllers cannot be blamed simply on better incident reporting.

Jeffrey Guzzetti of the US Department of Transportation told a hearing of assembled politicians on April 25 that while Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials maintain that the increase in operational errors is likely due to improved reporting practices, that assertion is not actually based on fact.

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“Specifically, the FAA believes that the introduction of voluntary, non-punitive safety reporting programmes – such as the Air Traffic Safety Action Program (ATSAP) – has encouraged controllers to voluntarily report operational errors. However, our ongoing work has found no evidence to support the FAA’s assertion that ATSAP is the primary contributor to the rise in operational errors.” said Guzzetti who is an assistant inspector general for aviation.

The aviation subcommittee, chaired by Congressman Tom Petri, held the hearing to review the FAA’s safety oversight of the US aviation system and focused on reviews by the Department of Transportation Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on operational errors, pilot fatigue and pilot training requirements, safety management systems, oversight of repair stations, and terminal area safety.

“The FAA is taking important steps to improve safety, such as implementing voluntary safety reporting for controllers, but the agency has not yet realised the full benefit of these efforts,” said Guzzetti. “While enhanced reporting has yielded important data on safety issues like operational errors and runway incursions, the FAA will need to ensure that the data are accurate, comprehensive, and effectively analysed to better identify baselines and safety trends.”

Guzzetti told the hearing that he expected that an additional 300 to 600 loss of separation incidents would be detected each day with the deployment of new automatic tracking software.

“The chances of a collision on the ground or in the air is low, but if it does occur, there will be a catastrophic loss of life. So that is why there is a lot of concern about tracking these near misses,” he said.

Gerald Dillingham, director of physical infrastructure issues, GAO, added: “While the FAA is diligently working to improve its safety data in some instances, more work remains to address limitations and to collect additional data where necessary.”

“There’s beginning to be a consensus that the most dangerous part of the trip is when the wheels are still on the ground,” Dillingham said. “According to FAA, there are three runway incursions that occur each day at towered airports in the United States. Runway excursions can be just as dangerous. FAA does not have a process in place to track and evaluate runway excursions.”

The last fatal commercial aviation accident in the US occurred in Buffalo, New York, on February 12, 2009, when 50 people died in the Colgan Air crash. In response to this accident, and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) findings that pilot training and lack of qualifications were potentially contributing factors, the FAA launched a Call to Action Plan in June that year to, among other things, increase airline participation in voluntary safety programmes.

In 2010, Congress passed the Airline Safety and FAA Extension Act (Airline Safety Act), which, in part, called for the aviation agency to better manage safety risks. As a result, FAA developed a concerted strategy to implement new safety programmes required by the Airline Safety Act, including establishing better processes for managing safety risks and advancing Safety Management Systems (SMS).

David Grizzle, who supervises the FAA’s more than 14,000 controllers, acknowledged that under past reporting practices “there was an incentive” for supervisors to “manage down the number of incidents that had been reported.”

Transport committee chairman John Mica told the hearing that the long-awaited enactment of the four-year FAA Reauthorisation Bill will do much to advance aviation safety in future: “Congress finally passed an FAA bill after five years of delay. While Congress did act during that time to also improve commuter airline safety, passing this new long-term safety law was critical for this agency, which was in turmoil and had no guiding policy blueprint during those years of short term extensions. Fortunately, large commercial airlines have had an incredible safety record in recent years. However, we can never assume this record will continue.”

Read our feature Collision Course where Bob Poole asks whether the retirement of a generation of controllers hired after the 1981 strike the cause of a large increase in US controller errors?


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