ATC errors near US airports double in three years: watchdog

Air traffic safety errors involving flights near US airports have more than doubled since 2008, according to the Government Accountability Office in a new report – and the rate continues to rise.
The US watchdog said error rates at facilities directing traffic within 40 miles of large airports increased to 22.6 per million flights from 8.5 over 2008-2011 with the rate of similar errors at airport towers increasing by 53 per cent.
“The rate and number of airborne operational errors—errors made by air traffic controllers—have increased considerably in recent years, with the rate nearly doubling from the second quarter of fiscal 2008 to the same period of 2011,” the GAO said.
The report attributes the sharp rise to the efforts of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) which oversees air traffic and regulates airports to encourage employees to report errors although notes that that this could also reflect actual increases in incidents.
Near-collisions on runways rose from 11.4 per million flights in 2004 to 17.8 in 2010. The vast majority of those cases were minor while the most severe incidents fell to 6 in 2010 from 53 in 2001.
“The FAA met its interim goals toward reducing the total number of runway incursions—the unauthorized presence of an airplane, vehicle, or person on the runway—in 2009 and 2010, but the overall rate of incursions at towered airports has trended steadily upward,” said the GAO.
The report noted that 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. It recommends that FAA extend oversight of terminal area safety to include runway overruns and ramp areas.
The watchdog said the FAA needed to better track safety lapses at airports, from aircraft that veer off runways to controllers who allow aircraft to get too close together, judging that: “the agency lacks data collection processes, risk-based metrics, and assessment frameworks for analyzing other safety incidents”.

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