Thursday, September 12, 2013

New Federal Aviation Administration System Targets Air-Traffic-Control Errors: Regulators Attribute Rise in Mistakes Last Year to New Automated System

Updated September 12, 2013, 7:03 p.m. ET


The Wall Street Journal

U.S. aviation regulators said reports of air-traffic-control mistakes more than doubled nationwide last year, but they attributed nearly all of the increase to a new automated system that vastly expanded the amount of data collected.

The Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday disclosed that for the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2012, an enhanced flight-tracking system helped identify roughly 4,400 midair incidents in which aircraft flew too close to each other. The overall number of events reported in the year-ago period was about 1,900.

FAA officials stressed in a media briefing that the numbers aren't comparable because in 2012, the agency substantially altered its procedures for collecting and assessing controller slip-ups. The changes included implementing automated systems designed to collect more data and identify many minor errors that previously went undetected.

Agency officials said the new computerized system and other changes—amounting to a 10-fold increase in the total number of available reports over the past three years—enhance safety because they more clearly identify budding hazards before they turn into accidents.

Still, the significant 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. Some industry safety experts also have concerns about how the automated incident-tracking system will affect voluntary reporting of controllers' mistakes.

The FAA for years bucked criticism from lawmakers and others about the frequency of controller slip-ups. Now, agency officials argue that given the influx of raw data, many so-called loss-of-separation events—when aircraft fly too close—are inconsequential and don't pose any significant danger to planes or passengers.

Yet critics are still likely to argue that the old system understated the extent of potential dangers, while the new approach makes it nearly impossible to get an accurate year-over-year comparison of critical safety trends.

Over the first eight months of 2012, the FAA received 121,499 mandatory and computer-generated reports of potentially inadequate airborne separation. Of that total, the agency said 4,394 were "validated losses of separation" and 1,271 of those were investigated in depth.

The agency has 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.

Using the latest computerized technology, the official said "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 said.

The FAA said the new data helped it identify five top hazards, including simultaneous operations on parallel runways and planes abruptly halting landing approaches to climb away from airports. The agency said it has implemented 19 of the 22 recommended remedies.

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.

On Thursday, the FAA also reported that across the U.S. for fiscal 2012, there were 1,150 so-called runway incursions, or incidents in which planes improperly crossed or failed to stop before encroaching on another runway. After years of remaining flat, that number amounts to a 20.5% increase over the prior year. The 2012 count includes 18 incidents in the two most severe categories, compared to seven such incidents in fiscal 2011 and six in 2010.

Over the past year or so, agency leaders have been mulling how to describe, categorize and learn from the barrage of additional information. In addition to cutting-edge software, the FAA has benefited from a new policy to encourage pilots and controllers to voluntarily report operational errors.

In fiscal 2012, the FAA received about 17,000 voluntary reports from controllers, a 7.5% increase over the previous year. The agency also has revised its procedures to most closely analyze only those incidents that appear to pose the greatest risk in coming months or years.

The FAA has long faced controversy and scrutiny over the frequency of controller mistakes. A 53% rise in so-called operational errors—primarily resulting from controller mistakes—occurred between fiscal years 2009 and 2010 and attracted attention from lawmakers. The FAA has said that increase was due in part to the increased voluntary reporting of slipups by controllers.

The Department of Transportation Office of the Inspector General said in a report this year that "the increase in reported errors was linked, in part, to a rise in actual errors rather than increased reporting."

The number of operational errors virtually stayed flat between fiscal years 2010 and 2011. But the most serious errors increased from 37 in fiscal year 2009 to 43 in 2010 to 55 in 2011.

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.

TARP, now fully implemented across the agency's network of radar-control centers, generated about 600 to 900 additional reports of losses of separation daily, according to congressional testimony earlier this year by the inspector general.