Close Calls in Air Traffic Control

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As you read this sentence (perhaps even on your laptop via in-flight WiFi), as many as 5,000 airplanes are soaring over U.S. territory. And directing them all are air traffic controllers who are essentially pulling the strings in a choreographed ballet designed to get passengers and pilots to and from their destinations as safely as possible.

Pilots certainly play vital roles in the process, but it is the nation's roughly 15,000 air traffic controllers who are responsible for overseeing the constant ebb and flow of air traffic that carries roughly 660 million passengers around the country during any given year.

Despite the rigorous training procedures, a recent story in The Washington Post reported that the number of errors made by air traffic controllers has risen dramatically this year across the country. And as a result, the National Transportation Safety Board is taking a closer look at near-collisions that have taken place in recent months.

On September 16, a US Airways jet and a small cargo plane narrowly missed a mid-air collision. The two aircraft reportedly took off from parallel runways at the Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport, but the pilot of the cargo plane did not follow orders to turn. The collision avoidance system was activated in the US Airways jet, and it was reported that the airplanes came within 50 to 100 feet of colliding. One of the captains was heard over the radio saying, "We just heard the guy go by," referring to the other plane.

Words like those are the stuff that chills air traffic controllers -- a famously calm, cool and collected bunch.

And such incidents happen more often than you'd think. Take it from one controller himself.

Close Calls in Air Traffic Control

Wikimedia Commons

"I almost had Aerogal (Aerolineas Galapagos) land on top of JetBlue on September 19," said Steve Abraham, NATCA (National Air Traffic Controllers Association) president at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Abraham, an air traffic controller for 20 years.

Abraham said that the JetBlue pilot had been cleared for takeoff and was rolling down the runway when the Ecuadorian passenger jet lined up to land on the wrong runway. Abraham estimated that the Aerogal pilot was roughly 300 feet from the runway when he corrected his mistake after Abraham instructed him to do so (listen to the full recording of the incident by looking for "767 almost lands on wrong runway at JFK Sunday 9/19.")

"You are lining up for the wrong runway, you need to start an immediate right turn," Abraham can be heard saying to the pilot in the recording. After this statement, the pilot can be heard telling the tower that he will "go around" (pilot speak for aborting a landing on approach), and Abraham reiterates, with increasing urgency in his voice, "You need to turn right, there's somebody rolling underneath you," referring to the JetBlue plane.

"It's as close as I ever want to see two planes,"" said Abraham about witnessing the event. .

And while pilots certainly make their share of errors, air traffic controllers are also often responsible for "proximity events," when airplanes are allowed to come closer together than the mandated distances (which vary depending on the type of jet).

The reason behind the rise in operational errors may have nothing to do with their frequency, though. It's worth noting that a new voluntary reporting system recently instituted by the FAA and its largest labor unions, called ATSAP (Air Traffic Safety Action Program), likely has something to do with more errors being reported.

"ATSAP is a non-punitive reporting system for controllers," explained FAA Spokesperson Tammy L. Jones in a statement emailed to AOL Travel . "It allows controllers and other employees to report safety problems without fear of punishment, unless the incident is deliberate or criminal in nature."

The goal, Jones said, is to learn from incidents before they become accidents. "We expect ATSAP and other efforts will result in more reporting of incidents, which will help us spot problems or trends so we can address them before an accident occurs," she said. "Voluntary reporting is a key element of our safety culture and something we will continue to promote at all levels of aviation to keep our system safe."

NATCA's Dale Wright, a controller for 32 years and the current director of safety and technology for NATCA, says that how dangerous an operational error is depends on the closeness of a proximity event.

Close Calls in Air Traffic Control

Control Tower; IanMuttoo, flickr

"A lot of these errors are barely breaking the minimum separation [distances]," he says, "Instead of having three miles [of separation between airplanes], it's 2.95. There are a lot more of those kind of errors being reported."

And errors like the aforementioned, says Wright, wouldn't be that unsafe. "The ones you have to worry about are less than a mile horizontally and less than a thousand feet vertically apart -- that would be pretty unsafe."

"The main thing is when they're reported you look at them and try to learn from them," Wright said about errors.

And while Wright says that one error is too many, the nation's air traffic controllers strive for no errors. "It takes a lot of work when it comes to error investigation, training for controllers and follow-up to ensure actions are being taken. If you look at the overall system, we're still the safest system in the world."

Steve Abraham, the seasoned controller from John F. Kennedy International Airport said that he advises everyone he instructs to use ATSAP all the time to report errors and thinks the system has "absolutely created an environment where more errors are reported."

"I don't want to say that, historically, operational errors were covered up," he says. "But there are so many avenues now for controllers to report errors."

And while Abraham says that it's "absolutely normal" for air traffic controllers to have at least one error during their careers, "you could have an error that's completely safe. If you drive 58 in a 55 have you broken the law? If my airplanes are 2.95 miles versus 3 miles apart, are they ever going to hit? No."

"I think the FAA has recently started looking at operational errors in a completely different way and I think that's great," said Abraham, "It's no longer a punitive environment. Now it's 'let's find out why and try to fix it.'"

Regarding the question of whether less experienced air traffic controllers who have recently entered the ranks are contributing to more error reports, Abraham says he still sees inexperience as a factor in errors.

"The problem with inexperience that I see in my facility is that unforeseen events trigger reactive decisions that may not always be the best, because they're just not used to it. They've never seen it before," he says.

Whether a major disaster will happen is anyone's guess. But when pressed on the question, Abraham says this:

"I think statistical averages dictate that airplanes are going to hit each other. The system is not perfect. Humans aren't perfect. You get a confluence of events, and stuff happens."

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