The Government Accountability Office released a report last week outlining a significant increase in the number of mistakes by air traffic controllers over the last three years. In addition, the report shows an increase in the incidents of runway incursions at airports using control towers. Many aviation accidents occur on the runway, including the deadliest aviation accident in history in which 583 people were killed when two 747's collided on the ground. The Federal Aviation Administration has identified runway incursions as a significant issue and has had a program designed to reduce this problem since 2007.
The FAA released a statement attributing the increase in air traffic controller mistakes to a new system of error reporting. Controllers are now able to report their own mistakes without fear of reprisal. In addition, plane-tracking software is now being used to identify when two planes are allowed to fly too close together. This type of error accounts for a significant portion of the increase. This form of controller error was reported twice as often as it had been three years ago. While the GAO report did acknowledge the changes in air traffic controller reporting, it indicated that errors were still trending upwards.
The FAA statement did not address the runway incursion issue. According to their records, the program to reduce incursions has been successful. The report did note that the FAA has already taken steps to enhance runway safety and reduce the total number of incursions at their facilities.
Hopefully the report will draw attention to the serious challenges facing air traffic controllers and the passengers and crew who rely on them. Aviation accidents are a terrible tragedy and it is vital to identify where errors are occurring. The flying public deserves no less.
Source: ABC News, "Watchdog: Air Traffic Controller Errors Soaring," Joan Lowy, 14 October 2011