published Monday, October 17th, 2011

Controlling air safety

The number of errors made by air traffic controllers at the nation's airports as well as the number of cases in which unauthorized equipment or persons were on a runaway has increased in the past three years, according to a report released by the Government Accountability Office late last week. The increases are worrisome, of course, but why they have occurred and what the numbers mean in terms of airline safety in the United States is a matter of considerable debate.

Federal Aviation Administration reports, according to the GAO, indicate that controller errors in what is called the "tower" area -- within five miles of the airport -- rose more than 50 percent from 2008 to 2011. In the same period, controller errors in the "approach" area -- within 40 miles of the airport -- rose by more than 166 percent. The numbers are mind-rattling.

So is the report that "runway incursions" -- anything that is not supposed to be on a runway, including an aircraft that is in the wrong place -- increased from 11 to 18 incidents per million takeoffs and landings from 2004 to 2010. Though the frequency is low, it still is enough to make even the most optimistic air traveler worry about safety.

Still, the numbers and the increases in the GAO report should be viewed in broad context rather than isolation. If that's done, a different picture emerges.

The study covers a period of time that is notable for its record of aviation safety. As this is written, 2011 has been free of fatal accidents involving U.S. airlines. Indeed, the last major crash of a U.S. carrier occurred in February 2009, when a Collagen Air flight went down in upstate new York. That accident, investigators determined, was not the fault of air traffic controllers but was caused by pilot error.

What, then, is the best way to evaluate what is widely accepted as an unbiased report that indicates increasing numbers of controller errors at a time when overall aviation safety seems to be improving? One is to compare the way errors are reported now and the way they were reported in the past.

Before 2009, few controllers reported errors because the fallout could be severe, including loss of their job. Now, a non-punitive reporting system urges controllers to freely report errors, and protects those who do from legal or disciplinary action. The result of the current rules, the FAA says is an increase in reported incidents that creates a body of knowledge that can be used to identify and resolve systemic problems. That, it would seem, is a good thing.

The GAO is not so sure. It's report says that a system designed to protect controllers from legal or disciplinary action could reduce accountability and "may make some air traffic controllers less risk-averse in certain situations." If that were to become the case, even a few incidents would be detrimental to air safety. There is no evidence at the moment, however that suggests that such behavior has infected the ranks of controllers.

The GAO report, then, is best viewed as a call to action, not as a point of debate. The study indicates that there is room for improvement in U.S. aviation safety, despite the enviable record of the last two years. The public needs regular reassurance that air travel is safe. Public and private officials and agencies can help provide it by working cooperatively to identify and to reduce problems inimical to airline safety in the skies and on the ground.

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