Air traffic control mistakes more than doubled nationwide last year as the government switched on more automatic monitors to track slip-ups, a report by the Federal Aviation Administration revealed Thursday.
Cases in which aircraft came closer together than FAA rules allow rose to 4,394 in the year ending Sept. 30, 2012, from 1,895 the previous year, according to agency data.
“We’ve gone from counting errors to identifying and mitigating safety risk,” David Grizzle, chief operating officer of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization, said in the report.
The results show a continuing trend of increasing air-traffic controller errors logged by the FAA since 2009, when the agency began a series of initiatives to discourage cover-ups and identify cases that weren’t being noticed.
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In fiscal 2009, there were 1,234 errors connected to controllers who allowed planes to get too close. Near airports, planes usually must be separated by 3.5 miles or 1,000 feet of altitude.
The FAA has attributed the increase to an initiative that encourages controllers to report errors without fear of punishment. The agency also stopped basing air-traffic managers’ raises in part on the number of controller errors reported at a facility.
Close calls on runways also were up last year, according to the report. Incidents that came closest to a collision between two planes, or a plane and ground equipment, totaled 18 last year, more than twice the seven that occurred in 2011.
The agency changed its classification of the most dangerous incidents, identifying 41 "high risk" events in fiscal 2012, including seven that could have been "catastrophic."
That compares with 55 that were in the most hazardous category a year earlier. The FAA said it would make comparable, year-to-year data available later in a congressionally mandated report, the Wall Street Journal
The big jump in overall incidents—coupled with challenges in interpreting the latest data—is likely to spark more questions on Capitol Hill about whether the chances of midair close calls or collisions are falling, the Journal noted.
Some industry safety experts also have concerns about how the automated incident-tracking system will affect voluntary reporting of controllers' mistakes.
Using the latest computerized technology, one official told the Journal "we are able to do more, see more and we are being more transparent," in releasing incident rates.
The goal is to "proactively address risk," he added, by identifying the most hazardous precursors for potential accidents and then digging deeply into the causes to eliminate the danger.
Rep. John Mica, a Florida Republican and former chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said the report signals the urgency of expediting air-traffic-control changes. "That will help us avoid these operational errors that have the potential of turning a near miss into a hit," he told the Journal.
Another FAA official said the latest data not only provide a "much broader and deeper view into our system," but are part of an unprecedented "cultural shift" meant to enlist controllers, supervisors and others to work more cooperatively to enhance safety.
The FAA's new software system, called the Traffic Analysis and Review Program, or TARP, automatically identifies losses of separation between aircraft and other objects; it logs the incidents in FAA databases without any input from local officials.
Capt. Sean Cassidy, first vice president of the Air Line Pilots Association, a union representing 50,000 pilots, commended the FAA for refining how the agency is identifying and fixing risks.
"It doesn't make me worried about the level of safety because all we're doing is applying a more refined data-gathering measure," Cassidy told USA Today.
"It increases the level of safety actually because it gives us a much more precise picture of what the world is like out there."
Bloomberg news also contributed to this report.
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