New DOT Inspector General Report Adds Fuel to the Already Simmering Air Traffic Control Safety Concerns

While Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Michael Huerta sat in the witness chair on February 27, 2013, sitting on his desk was a new Audit Report from the Office of Inspector General concluding that FAA’s efforts to track and mitigate air traffic losses of separation are limited by data collection and implementation challenges.

(UPDATE March, 22, 2013:  See FAA Issues List of Towers to Close Due To Sequester for the list of Air Traffic Control Towers that the FAA has slated to close).

Over the past few years, the FAA has reported that there has been an increase in reported air-traffic control mistakes.  The FAA has claimed that the 53% increase from 2009 to 2010 in planes getting too close together is a result of its institution of an automated program, called Traffic Analysis and Review Program, and a voluntary, non-punitive program in which controllers can self-report safety instances and concerns called Air Traffic Safety Action Program.  The Inspector General, however, found that those programs cannot account for all of the increase, since other automated programs that had been in place during those years reported a 39% increase in operational errors.

In fairness to the FAA, the Report did mention that almost one-quarter of the increase is due to the revocation of a separation waiver at the Southern California Terminal Radar Approach Control that led to the reclassification of many routine approach and landings as “operational errors.”  The waiver allowed aircraft landing simultaneously to be closer than normally allowed.  However, Air Traffic Safety Oversight Service revoked the waiver because it considered it unsafe, and subsequently, reclassified air craft landings that occurred under the waiver as operational errors.

The Inspector General concluded that the FAA’s “new policies and procedures for collecting, investigating, and reporting separation losses have the potential to reduce losses and improve reporting, but their effectiveness is limited by incomplete data and implementation challenges.”  One of the primary challenges, according to the Inspector General, is the fact that FAA’s training for controllers and managers on the new policies and procedures has been limited, and the fact many managers of FAA air traffic facilities believed that they do not have enough staff or knowledge of local flight procedures and airspace to effectively investigate operational errors.

This is where the budget cuts due to the sequester come in.  The spending cuts, along with required furloughs of FAA employees, including air traffic controllers, could hurt the incremental progress that the FAA is currently making.  The National Air Traffic Controllers Association said on Monday, March 5, 2013, after the Audit Report was released to the public, that the budget cuts “may stymie the efforts of air traffic controllers and the FAA to move safety reporting systems forward with updated technologies and procedures.”

With a hiring freeze in effect, the FAA’s plans to augment its current staff of 16 to investigate the “high number” of mistakes, will not happen this fiscal year.  Yet, Clayton Foushee, Director of the FAA’s Office of Audit and Evaluation, remained optimistic in the FAA’s reply to the audit.  He said that the FAA has completed the most significant improvements in control safety in 30 years, including the program for voluntary reporting of incidents and electronic detection and that more initiatives are planned for later this year.

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