Near misses between aircraft have shot up an alarming 600 percent over the last four years, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, the Washington Times reported.
The "serious errors" are caused by air-traffic controllers who leave too little distance between aircraft, Jeffrey Guzzetti, the U.S. Transportation Department assistant inspector general, told Congress earlier this year.
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There were 37 reported near-collisions in 2009. By 2012, that number jumped to an estimated 275, investigators said.
Reports of planes that get too close, but are not in serious danger of colliding, also are on the rise, The Washington Times reported.
Those lesser errors remained relatively flat from 2006 to 2009, but rose from 1,200 to 1,900 in less than two years afterward. The inspector general's office estimated that the number will rise again sharply, to 2,500, when the data for fiscal 2012 is compiled.
But the inspector general warned that an exact count of incidents in which aircraft come too close is impossible to accurately nail down — and could be even higher — because the FAA's collection of that information is incomplete.
During a February investigation, FAA officials suggested that the increase in near-collisions was because of more thorough reporting of such incidents. The IG agreed reporting was improving, but insisted that errors and mistakes still are on the rise.
Airline safety has come front and center July 6 after an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 jetliner crashed at San Francisco airport, killing three.
Staffing shortages could be at the root of the agency's inability to thoroughly investigate near-collisions, the inspector general fears. At the start of 2012, the agency had 300 people assigned to conduct investigations. By February, there were only 16, with the FAA insisting it planned to hire more.
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A spokesman for Republican Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo of New Jersey, chairman of the House Transportation subcommittee, told the Washington Times that Congress is monitoring FAA efforts to stop near-collisions and that the safety of the "flying public is the first and foremost concern."
But, the IG said, manpower needed to track near-collisions isn’t the only area where the FAA is woefully understaffed. Over the past three years, the FAA has reported six times that it did had too few aircraft-safety officers.
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