What's Really to Blame for Air Traffic Control's Increasing Errors

Asleep at the wheel has taken on all too real a meaning for American air traffic control. In addition to the high-profile aborted landing of an Air Force jet carrying Michelle Obama in April, the Federal Aviation Administration currently is investigating two cases of controllers sleeping on the job in January, one in Los Angeles, the other in Fort Worth. Three other controllers already have been fired for falling asleep on the job this year.

The latest string of errors comes on the heels of a 53 percent increase in reported errors from fiscal year 2009 to 2010, representing a rise from 1,233 to 1,887, according to statistics provided by the FAA.

In light of the uptick, Senate Commerce Committee Chair Jay Rockefeller convened hearings on May 25, at which he called the air traffic controllers' working environment "stunning."

For its part, the FAA readily acknowledges the problem.

"We are concerned about the upward trend in operational errors and we are reviewing procedures and training throughout the air traffic control system to ensure we are addressing any safety issues and making any necessary changes," said Sasha Johnson, FAA Assistant Administrator for Communications in a statement to AOL Jobs.

The FAA has begun phasing in reforms for the country's roughly 15,000 air traffic controllers represented by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). In a bid to protect against fatigue, the FAA has mandated that, as of April, controllers have a minimum of nine hours between shifts. And the practice of staffing just one controller during midnight shifts was brought to an end with additional controllers assigned to the 27 control towers still operating with one-man overnight operations.

Even though the top FAA brass, including administrator J. Bruce Babbitt, has recognized the spike in errors as a problem, NATCA spokesman Doug Church says that the matter, in fact, has nothing to do with performance.

"We don't believe there's a rise," he says. "There's a rise in reported errors." To back the claim that the higher number is simply the result of improved detection, and not negligence, he noted that new radar technology at airport terminals has extended surveillance capability to 40 miles from airports. The likelihood is therefore higher that airplanes flying too close together will be picked up from further away than ever before, he said. "You simply can't compare the numbers."

Other changes that have been implemented include the recent establishment of a non-punitive voluntary error reporting system for the controllers. "This cultural change in safety reporting has produced a wealth of information to help the FAA identify potential risks in the system and take swift action to address them," Johnson said in her statement. But the very move raises the question -- can air traffic control fix itself?

"You have an operator who regulates itself. How can that be?" says Marc Scribner, a land-use and transportation policy analyst with the Competitive Enterprise Institute. "At a bare minimum, to ensure proper oversight and to prevent the FAA from having to protect itself, the Air Traffic Organization (ATO) should be spun off from the FAA."

The ATO is charged with the operation of American aviation within the FAA, and its employees include controllers as well technicians and support personnel. Oversight is run through the Air Traffic Safety Oversight Service (AOV), also a branch of the FAA.

"This is a good-government no-brainer," says Bob Poole, the director of transportation policy for the libertarian Reason Foundation. "Every other major OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] government, except Mexico, has removed safety regulation from systems operation. If we did this, we would have a better chance of focusing on major safety problems."

Industrialized nations starting with New Zealand in 1987 began separating its aviation administrations. The idea was even floated in the U.S. in 1994 during the Clinton administration's Reinventing Government initiative before it quickly died off. And while Poole has often been the public face of the controversial movement to privatize air traffic control, what he says he advocates is the "commercialization" of air traffic control. He says that the overhaul need not lead to a formal for-profit entity, but can in fact exist within the government. What is paramount, he says, is a "depoliticization ... that ensures that aviation is regulated at arm's length for safety."

For his part, Church, of NATCA, dismissed any conflict of interest out of hand, but critics of federal control of aviation raise other issues besides those related to oversight.

"Air traffic control is a high tech business," says Chris Edwards, the Director of Tax Policy Studies at the Cato Institute. "You can't run a high-tech business from a bureaucracy in Washington. It doesn't really work." Edwards says that the need for private participation in air traffic control has become more acute and thrown into stark relief as air traffic control transitions from traditional radar to a satellite-based system.

With NATCA firmly opposed to any privatization, the view of the air traffic controllers is to deal with the problems internally.

"Our system is the largest most complex system in the world. You can't compare what goes on in Canada or the U.K. to what we have here," says Steve Hansen, a controller in Albuquerque and the NATCA Safety Committee chairman. "The current direction the ATO is taking is the best way. The introduction of a safety culture is much healthier by instituting voluntary reporting forces. You can't start sacrificing safety for profit."

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