Trainee clue to hike in US operational errors

A transport watchdog has revealed a real and alarming increase in errors such as losses of separation at some of the busiest facilities in the US – although neglected to query if the number of trainees was to blame.

In a report released in late February by the US Department of Transportation Office of the Inspector General (OIG), investigators found that the hike during fiscal 2009-2010 was the result of much more automated reporting of such incidents at towers and Terminal Radar Approach Controls (or TRACONs), following the deployment of the automated Traffic Analysis and Review Programme (TARP) at those facilities.

Examining a similar automated system that has been operational at centres for many years, the OIG said it too showed an upward trend in errors – up 39 per cent during the same period. Additionally, the fact that the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) has changed the way it records errors, no longer relying on self-reporting by facility managers – a practice the OIG found to be seriously flawed – had also triggered a significant increase in reported incidents.

In investigations at the Dallas Fort Worth TRACON in 2005 and 2008, the OIG found ‘air traffic managers intentionally misclassified operational errors as either pilot deviations or ‘non-events’ to reduce the number of operational errors reported at that location’, something which ‘the FAA’s oversight processes failed to uncover.”

Writing in his regular newsletter on ATC reform, Bob Pooole of the US policy think-tank The Reason Foundation said: “An alarming finding in this new report is that 60 per cent of the increase in operational errors between 2009 and 2010 occurred at just 10 facilities. These are all very busy facilities, and according to the OIG report (see below), the aggregate increase in errors at these 10 was 121 per cent.

However, 147 of the 714 reported errors at these 10 were not classified as errors when they originally occurred at the Southern California TRACON, since that facility was operating under a waiver that allowed simultaneous landings on parallel runways to be closer than normally allowed.

In the table, Poole has removed those 147, but still finds the numbers ‘troubling’.

To add some insight into why those facilities seem especially error-prone, Poole has added two additional columns to the table, drawn from a January 2012 OIG analysis of controller staffing and training at major facilities. It shows that most of these facilities have both high percentages of trainees and high trainee attrition rates.

Facility 2009 Errors 2010 Errors % Increase % Trainees % Attrition
Central Florida TRACON 5 24 380% n.a. n.a.
Houston TRACON 11 44 300% 42% 22%
Miami Center 15 30 100% n.a. n.a.
Potomac TRACON 21 41 95% 29% 12%
DFW TRACON 84 143 70% 34% 57%
Charlotte Tower 20 34 70% n.a. n.a.
New York TRACON 74 119 61% 24% 77%
New York Center 25 40 60% 22% 43%
Atlanta Center 35 50 43% 26% 18%
Southern California TRACON 33 42* 27%* 35% 49%
TOTAL 323 567* 76%*

*adjusted from OIG table, per explanation in text

“The new OIG report does not mention the potential relationship between high fractions of controllers in training, and high attrition rates, as causes of the large increases in errors at these facilities. Most of the report focuses instead on recommendations for further improvements in how the FAA investigates and draws conclusions about trends, error causes, and remedial actions. Stepping back and looking at the larger picture, I would recommend two far bigger policy changes,” writes Poole.

First, he recommends radically revising controller training and testing before trainees are assigned to facilities for on-the-job training, as recommended in 2011 by the agency’s Independent Review Panel on the Selection, Assignment, and Training of Air Traffic Control Specialists.

“Among other things, this would end pass-fail testing and would send the most-skilled trainees to the most challenging facilities—which is not the current practice. A recent report on the validity of the aptitude test given to applicants for controller training at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City found some correlation between test scores and completing on-the-job training at the trainee’s first facility. But the sample used for the analysis over-represented those who scored higher, which would bias the results.”

“Second, separate air safety regulation from the provision of ATC services, thereby providing truly arm’s length regulation of safety – as exists in nearly all developed countries and is ICAO policy worldwide, writes Poole.

The OIG concludes in its report that reported losses of separation continue to be a major air safety concern, particularly in light of dramatic increases in their occurrence.

“While the FAA recently issued new policies and processes for investigating and mitigating separation losses, a lack of a reliable baseline creates substantial challenges for the FAA to ensure these new policies and processes are effective.

“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.”

Posted in CAAs/ANSPs, News, Operations, Safety, Training and Simulation

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