Wednesday, June 01, 2011

The Truth About ATC Errors

I was reading a blog on the Wall Street Journal site this morning and it hit me that no one (outside of air traffic control) knows what the truth of the situation really is. Even some of those on the inside don’t really know. This is what you get for an official line;

”With the annual surge in summer airline travel looming, Federal Aviation Administration chief Randy Babbitt for months has been telling lawmakers and the flying public not to worry about a roughly 50% jump in reported air-traffic controller mistakes last year. He says the increase is largely attributable to more-accurate reporting systems.”

And this was the truth about the current situation;

”So what will happen ? It’s impossible to know. But I can tell you what happened last time. I was there. I lived it. And I remember that in 1987 I was really scared we were going to have “the big one.” Take a look at these figures.

Number of Near Mid Air Collisions (NMAC)

1984 -- 589
1985 --758
1986 -- 840
1987 -- 1,058
1988 -- 710
1989 -- 550
1990 -- 454
1991 -- 348
1992 -- 311
1993 -- 293

That’s what I wrote back in January of 2008. That was the truth as I knew it back then and what follows is the truth as I know it today.

First -- yes -- there are more errors happening. While I’m certain that the FAA’s new reporting system is documenting more errors, I’m just as certain more errors are occurring. I’ve been around long enough to know that the FAA intentionally changes the way it counts operational errors (airplanes getting too close together) on a regular basis. It does this for exactly the reason that caused you to read this blog -- it makes it hard to know the truth. The FAA (as an institution) doesn’t want anyone to know the truth. That is somewhat odd, because the truth the general public cares about is really pretty good. Actually, it’s excellent. Commercial aviation in America (and the rest of the industrialized world) is as safe as you can imagine. It’s incredibly safe. There is no safer way to travel.

But errors do occur. If the truth be known, the media sensationalizes most of them. Ignorance breeds fear and let’s face it -- the vast majority of people are just downright ignorant when it comes to air traffic control. Fear sells. At least on TV. Reporters don’t know much about air traffic control but they know a lot about fear.

So, who do you believe? You can believe me. Sorry, I don’t know of a way to make that sound less self serving. But I can explain the facts of it. I was a controller for 25 years. I was a safety representative for the last decade of my career. So, I know what I’m talking about but, most importantly, I am independent. I no longer work for the FAA (I’m retired), I no longer represent NATCA (the controller’s union), I don’t write for anybody but myself and nobody pays me a nickel for anything. (I do get a retirement check from Uncle Sam.) In other words, nobody is paying me to lie to you. I don’t have a reason to even shade the truth.

More errors are occurring. But the difference in the level of safety within the air traffic control system of 10 years ago and today is so small it’s statistically insignificant. Or it would be, if you could measure it. But you can’t. Think of it this way; Last year, nobody died in commercial aviation. No bodies. Zero. You can’t improve on that. And that is the frame of reference you have to use in aviation safety. The struggle isn’t so much to improve safety as it is to maintain it.

The FAA has a lot of new, inexperienced controllers. If these new controllers were working record levels of traffic (like we had in 2007) I’d be more concerned. But the Great Recession took care of that. Air traffic dropped off significantly. And in that we seem mired in a stagnant recovery, I don’t see traffic increasing significantly anytime soon. That’s a real godsend for the FAA -- and you.

By the way, the Near Mid-Air Collision the WSJ blog mentioned at the end of the article wasn’t sensationalism. That one really was scary. You don’t have to be scared about it. Controllers will be scared for you. Seriously. It’s actually a good thing that controllers get scared every once in awhile. It beats the alternative. Remember, this system is safe. It’s as safe as any system man has ever devised. It isn’t perfect. We may never attain perfection but we must always strive for it.

Don Brown
June 1, 2011

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