An air traffic controller watches outbound flights at Memphis International… (Jim Weber/AP )
Federal investigators confirmed Monday that errors by the nation’s air traffic controllers have increased sharply, challenging the Federal Aviation Administration’s contention that most of the jump was due to better data collection.
In an audit released Monday, the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation said that “the increase in reported errors was linked, in part, to a rise in actual errors rather than increased reporting.”
The report renews concerns about aviation mistakes at a time when the FAA has warned that sequestration may require controller furloughs and closing control towers at smaller airports.
An official familiar with the report said it raises questions about the manner in which the FAA collects reports and classifies the mistakes made by the controllers responsible for safe air travel.
“The report is kind of an indictment of how they categorize and deal with these errors,” said the official, who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak publicly.
The inspector general’s report cited a 95 percent increase in controller errors reported in 2010 at the facility that supervises air traffic into the area’s three major airports: Reagan National, Dulles International and Baltimore-Washington International Marshall. It was the fifth-highest increase from 2009 to 2010 in the nation, outranked only by error increases in Southern California, Central Florida, Houston and Miami.
The inspector general was asked by Congress to review the FAA’s error-reporting process after testimony last April caused concerns about the agency’s accuracy. That hearing followed reports in The Washington Post that raised questions about the accounting, and after the National Transportation Safety Board began a formal investigation of incidents in which planes came dangerously close to each other while in flight.
The FAA issued a statement in response to Monday’s inspector general’s report, reiterating its position that better data collection caused a “dramatic increase” in the number of controller errors reported. It said, however, that the increase came last year, two years after the period studied by the inspector general.
The majority of errors do not put passengers at great risk. But there were enough serious incidents that the NTSB stepped in to investigate.
It looked into an incident near National Airport in which an airliner carrying Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) swerved to avoid another jet after the on-board collision avoidance system was activated. The NTSB also reviewed an incident in which a White House plane carrying first lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, wife of the vice president, was allowed to stray too close to the turbulence of another plane.
There were 1,234 recorded operational errors in fiscal 2009, and although there were more than a million fewer flights in 2010, the number of reported errors jumped to a record 1,887.
In the past, controllers faced punishment for such errors, and supervisors recognized that it was in their best interest to keep a lid on the number of errors that were reported. Now, controllers are encouraged to report their errors without fear of retribution.
The FAA said it moved to what it calls a nonpunitive culture for reporting errors for a strategic reason. They said that implementing a revolutionary $40 billion system known as NextGen requires that they first need a complete picture of how mistakes are being made.
In its response to the inspector general’s report, the FAA did not address the investigators’ contention that there had been an increase in the number of errors by controllers in 2009-2010.
“In January 2012, the FAA significantly changed the way it reports, analyzes and acts upon safety data,” said the FAA statement sent to reporters. “As a result, the FAA has seen a dramatic increase in reporting, and is now collecting unprecedented amounts of qualitative safety data. . . . Validation and analysis have greatly enhanced the agency’s ability to identify and prioritize risk, then mitigate it.”
FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood have underscored that they will not allow cuts caused by sequestration to compromise air-travel safety.