Air controllers face retraining; 2011 errors up slightly

WASHINGTON (HawaiiNewsNow) - The Federal Aviation Administration said earlier this spring it will require all air-traffic controllers to undergo periodic retraining as part of an effort to identify and stop potential safety threats ahead of time instead of investigating close calls after the fact, like near collisions.

The FAA's initiative to reduce controller mistakes will increasingly rely on error reports voluntarily filed by employees and use computer systems to flag instances when planes come too close to each other, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The new push announced in March, described by agency officials as a "cultural change in air-traffic safety," seeks to analyze large volumes of data to spot hazardous trends, from dangerous landing approaches to confusion over radio transmissions, The Wall Street Journal reported.  FAA officials then hope to use the data to enhance safety through various procedural changes, safeguards and other measures, the newspaper said.

In many cases, the new techniques "identify discrepancies that would never have been identifiable" before, said David Grizzle, the FAA's traffic-control chief, because computerized detection systems did not exist and controllers worried about being punished for reporting mistakes. In recent years, the FAA has brought about non-punitive, voluntary reporting programs, The Wall Street Journal reported.

In January, the FAA began requiring eight hours of re-training for all controllers every six months.

The number of air-traffic control errors barely increased last year, even though controllers fell under scrutiny because some were caught sleeping on the job.  The FAA reported 1,895 incidents last year in which planes flew too close to each other or other air-traffic guidelines were broken.

The errors added up to just eight more incidents than 2010, although significantly higher than 2009, when 1,234 errors were reported.  The year-to-year jump coincided with different reporting rules that encouraged controllers to voluntarily report incidents without fear of reprisals, the USA Today reported.

Some of the errors have been high profile, such as when First Lady Michelle Obama's jet had to abort a landing near Washington, D.C. in April 2011 so it would not hit an Air Force C-17 cargo plane on the runway.  Other incidents received little attention, as in January 2011 when an American Airlines plane carrying 269 passengers narrowly avoided a midair collision with two Air Force planes near New York City.

The last time the National Transportation Safety Board blamed an air-traffic controller in part for a fatal accident was in Hawaii in January of 2010, when a single-engine Piper plane flew into a steep ridge near Kaau Crater in East Honolulu, killing the pilot and his passenger. Well-known veterinarian Nicholas Palumbo, 81, and his 20-year-old son Timmy died in the crash.

The FAA said it is experiencing its safest period ever, based on the rate of fatalities on commercial flights over a three-year period.  The last fatal accident on a commercial aircraft happened in February 2009, when a Colgan Air flight crashed into a home near Buffalo, N.Y., killing 50 people.

In 2011, there were at least six instances of controllers sleeping or being unresponsive in the control tower from February to April.  None of the incidents came close to causing an accident, but two jetliners landed at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport while a controller slept just after midnight March 23, 2011.

Copyright 2012 Hawaii News Now. All rights reserved.