AP is running a story about how the number of Air Traffic Control (ATC) errors has more than doubled. The AP story blames an erosion of funding, politics, crowded airspace, and the retirement of more experienced controllers for the rise in errors.
As a fairly experienced pilot (no, I do not work for any commercial airline, the FAA, or the military) I as a humble blogger have some in-depth knowledge of the ATC situation. Here is my take on what is happening:
If you search “NASA ASRS” in google you will find NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System. The program is run by NASA rather than the FAA so that there is an outside entity overseeing the concept. Basically ASRS is a sort of amnesty system for pilots, controllers, flight attendants, and maintenance staff. Anytime a rule or regulation is broken, an unsafe condition or practice is discovered, or there is some sort of close call, the people involved can voluntarily report this to NASA and in return receive immunity (in most cases) from FAA enforcement actions. This voluntary reporting helps to identify trends and possible unsafe practices which can hopefully avoid problems in the future.
So back to the air traffic controllers now. ATC has been encouraged to report close calls or violations of their procedures more often than in the past. This has been a push from management and the FAA for more than a year now. Obviously if you have more reports being filed voluntarily rather than only when discovered by management or when a controller is in trouble, you will see a spike in errors. Any increase in voluntary reporting is actually a good thing because as I mentioned earlier it can help to identify problems before it is too late.
As for the issue of experienced controllers retiring – this is true. A large number of controllers have retired or will be retiring shortly. There still exists stringent training and performance standards, and corners are not being cut just to have more “warm bodies.” the FAA has been actively hiring to replace the controllers that will be retiring.
As the AP article mentions, new ground equipment as well as aircraft avionics are allowing better data collection than in the past. So before, when two aircraft were supposed to be separated by 2000 feet of altitude in cruise flight, they could have been only 1800 feet in actuality. Newer equipment and better avionics and TAS (Traffic Alert Systems) have made pilots and controllers much more aware of what is going on around them.
This Saturday marks 24 months without a fatality on US air carriers. So while safety should never be taken for granted, and no one in the system should be allowed to become complacent, the system is working. Keep in mind that the FAA funding bill is currently being debated in congress and this Chicken Little “the sky is falling…” just happens to come out at a time when certain members of congress are pushing for more funding for the agency.