Wednesday, January 3, 2001

Airplane near-collisions and similar potential catastrophes at Washington area airports more than tripled in the past five years, according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The report, released last month, blamed the increased threat of accidents on lax supervision and training at the Leesburg, Va., air-traffic-control center.

In the last five years, “operational errors” by air-traffic controllers grew 325 percent in the Washington area, the report says. The high number of errors is perplexing because air traffic during the same period grew only 20 percent.

In its remarks on the unusually high number of errors in the Washington area, the Transportation Department inspector general “found that operational managers and supervisors were not providing adequate oversight of control-room operations, controllers were not adequately briefing controllers coming on duty, controllers were not provided adequate training and control-room distractions contributed to errors.”

The report’s reference to the Washington area means all air traffic in the District of Columbia, most of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, the eastern half of North Carolina, the eastern half of West Virginia and the southern tip of New Jersey. It includes air traffic involving Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Dulles International Airport and Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Despite being told in 1999 to correct the problems, the Transportation Department said, “there was little evidence the [FAA] followed up to ensure corrective actions were taken or to determine why operational errors continued to rise.”

Even after the warning in 1999, the report said, “operational errors have risen 51 percent at New York and 38 percent at Washington. In addition, we found that the [FAA] did not update its plans to focus on correcting deficiencies identified, nor did headquarters require it to do so.”

The Transportation Department charted the number of air-traffic controller errors annually from 1996 through 2000. The number increased each year in the Washington area, from 24 in 1996 to 102 in 2000.

The FAA and air-traffic controllers blamed the rise in near-collisions on increased air traffic and outdated technology. They also said the FAA is doing a better job of reporting near-collisions, which has inflated the number of reported errors.

In the Washington area, the numbers are particularly unrepresentative of actual hazards because they do not reflect the degree of danger to passengers, said Eliot Brenner, FAA spokesman.

“You have to consider that there are very few occasions when aircraft actually get dangerously close to one another,” Mr. Brenner said. “In most cases, these are small deviations from our very high separation standards. But we are always concerned when there is an error.”

The Transportation Department report defined an operational error as any time “an air-traffic controller does not ensure that Federal Aviation Administration separation standards are maintained between airplanes.”

A standard FAA separation is five miles laterally and 1,000 feet vertically up to 29,000 feet and 2,000 feet vertically above 29,000 feet. Lateral separation during approaches to airports or during take-offs is generally between three and five miles, depending on the type of airplane.

Mr. Brenner also said air-traffic controllers have moved to new equipment during the period studied. “There can be a tendency toward more errors during a transition to new equipment,” he said. “That’s now behind us.”

Since October, he said, the number of near-collisions has declined in the Washington area. He credited “an error-reduction plan” that includes additional training for air-traffic controllers.

Kevin Aurandt, vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association Local ZDC in Leesburg, said the union and FAA management at the air-traffic control center in Leesburg agreed to an error-prevention plan in July 1999. FAA officials vetoed the plan because they lacked the resources to implement it, he said.

He disagreed with the report’s finding that safety is jeopardized. “It didn’t demonstrate an accurate reflection of the number of errors that occurred,” Mr. Aurandt said.

Any problems result from increased air traffic, he said. “It’s simply another indication of a system under strain that needs more modernization efforts that would allow it to grow with the demands being placed on it by industry,” Mr. Aurandt said.

However, Richard Kaplan, spokesman for Transportation’s inspector general, said the report’s figures do represent a potential hazard.

“I would say that the increase in operational errors does represent a potential increased risk to the public,” Mr. Kaplan said. “The problem is that FAA does not identify the severity of each incident. They don’t know the potential risk.”

The Transportation Department recommended a number of changes to help reduce the hazards. They include requiring the FAA to develop a method for determining the severity of operational errors, creating error-prevention plans and storing tapes of recorded voice communications and radar images for 45 days instead of 15 days, which would allow the FAA more time to review errors.

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