Business Week: U.S. air-traffic safety errors involving flights near airports more than doubled over the past three years, the Government Accountability Office said.
The Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees air- traffic and regulates airports, needs to better track safety lapses at airports, from jets that veer off runways to controllers who allow aircraft to get too close together, the GAO said today in a report examining data from fiscal 2008 to 2011.
The rates of safety hazards on or near airports continue to rise, the GAO said, while crediting the FAA with taking steps to reduce hazards.
Air-traffic error rates at facilities directing traffic within 40 miles of large airports increased to 22.6 per million flights from 8.5 over the period studied, the GAO said. The rate of similar errors at airport towers increased by 53 percent, it said.
These errors occur when controllers direct aircraft to fly too close to each other.
Most of the increases resulted from the FAA’s efforts to encourage employees to report errors, rather than an increase in the number of incidents taking place, the aviation agency said in a statement.
“More information will help us find problems and take action before an accident happens, which will help us build an even safer aviation system,” the statement said.
Following a series of incidents in which controller errors were covered up, the FAA created a non-punitive reporting system to encourage employees to come forward and stopped paying managers for keeping errors down.
’Incentive’ to Hide
“Everybody had an incentive to not report before,” Steve Hansen, safety chairman at the National Air Traffic Controllers Association union, said in an interview.
The FAA’s efforts “have likely contributed to the increased number of incidents reported,” the GAO report said.
Some of the higher numbers may have reflected actual increases in incidents, the GAO said. Controller errors at FAA facilities with systems that automatically record mistakes were 38 percent higher in fiscal 2010 than the previous year, the GAO said.
These automated systems are located at FAA facilities overseeing high-altitude traffic.
A one-time misunderstanding of rules led to about 150 reported errors in Southern California, the GAO said. That represented about one-third of all errors in the U.S. from January through March of 2010, it said.
Runway Collision Risks
The FAA needs to do a better job of tracking incidents in which aircraft roll off runways, the report said.
Near-collisions on runways rose from 11.4 per million flights in 2004 to 17.8 in 2010. The vast majority of those cases were minor, the GAO said.
The most severe incidents, those that nearly caused a collision, fell to 6 in 2010 from 53 in 2001, GAO said.