A plane takes off past the control tower at San Francisco International Airport on Feb. 25. Mistakes by air traffic controllers have soared, according to a new report by the Transportation Department's IG. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)
Mistakes by air traffic controllers have soared in recent years, according to a new report by the Transportation Department’s inspector general.
After remaining flat or declining for several years, reported operational errors — when controllers let planes come too close together, with potentially catastrophic results — shot up 53 percent in fiscal 2009 to almost 1,900 and stayed at about the same level in 2010, the IG’s review found.
One lapse in January 2011 led to a near midair collision between two military aircraft and a commercial airliner near New York City, according to the report.
While the Federal Aviation Administration had attributed most of the increase to better reporting, the inspector general found that actual mistakes were up significantly.
The report did not seek to identify the reasons for the rise.
Although FAA recently adopted new procedures for investigating and reducing errors, their effectiveness is limited by “incomplete data and implementation challenges,” the report said.
The official 2011 total of 1,895 errors, for example, does not include 157 “runway incursions” that occurred at the Charlotte, N.C., airport when planes, people or vehicles mistakenly ended up in areas slated for takeoffs or landings. FAA’s interpretation of those incursions as “non-events” relied on senior officials’ judgment that safety was not affected. Had they been counted as mistakes, the 2011 total would have been 9 percent higher, the IG noted.
In response to the findings, FAA officials said they had just completed “the largest and most significant improvements” in three decades to the agency’s handling of air traffic control safety performance. They agreed, however, both to assess implementation of the new procedures and to do more to investigate the factors behind controller errors and how to prevent them.