Controller error report tells only a partial story

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Air traffic controller errors on and around airports have increased sharply in recent years, but data gathered by the Government Accounting Office (GAO) doesn’t tell the complete story.

Mistakes by controllers handling arrival and departures have nearly double in the past three years. Runway incursions at airports with control towers increased more than 60% from 2004 to 2010. In 2004 incursions were 11 incidents per million landings and takeoffs and in 2010 this had increased to 18 incidents per million.

These numbers give only a partial picture of controller activity because FAA oversight in the terminal area is currently limited to certain types of incidents, notably runway incursions and certain airborne incidents, and does not include runway overruns or incidents in ramp areas. The GAO report also reports that changes to reporting processes and procedures make it difficult to access safety trends and existing data might not be readily available to decision makers.

In recent years FAA has increased its data gathering as part of continuing efforts to keep air traffic management safe. The GAO report says “the nation’s aviation system is arguably the safest in the world.” The government watchdog group undertook the study at the request of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Air traffic controllers responded to the GAO report with the controllers’ association president declaring controllers are “exceptionally proud of our safety record and pleased that the GAO report has validated the safety of our system.” Paul Rinaldi, president of National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), said his group and the FAA have been working together over the past years to improve runway safety and the level of communication with FAA to address safety is at a premium.

Rep. John Mica (D-Fla.), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, raises some significant concerns. He said the committee has also asked the GAO to examine runway safety and report back to Congress.

GAO’s report had one recommendation: “To enhance oversight of terminal area safety to include the range of incidents that pose risks to aircraft and passengers. The Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA administrator to develop and implement plans to track and assess runway excursions and extend oversight to ramp safety.”

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