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Air Traffic Control Error Reports Double

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We’re living in one of the safest periods in aviation history. Accidents and deaths are as rare as ever. But new data showing air traffic control errors have nearly doubled and is cause for concern about our safety in the skies.

According to the Associated Press (AP), the number of air traffic control errors during the 12 months ending September 2010 was 1,889, up from 947 during the same period a year earlier. As for what caused this increase, well, that depends on who you ask.

According to the FAA, the spike is the result of a new, non-punitive reporting system designed to generate more error reports. According to the AP, the new program is “aimed at increasing error reporting so trends can be spotted and new training methods, changes in procedures, or other actions can be taken.”

Air traffic controller Evan Seeley tells a different story. Seely told the AP that, at least in his facility at Ronkonkoma, New York, controllers watched movies and played electronic games during slower times. He said, generally, there was a “lax atmosphere.”

Whatever the reason, the increase is a cause for concern. Not only did overall error reports rise, but the number of serious errors is growing as well. According to the AP, “very few of the errors fall into the most serious category, which could result in pilots taking evasive action to prevent an accident. But those instances have also increased. In the year ending Sept. 30, there were 44 such events; 37 in the prior year and 28 in the year before that.”

Perspective is important here. The number of error reports represents a statistically insignificant fraction of a percent of total flights. Even a 99 percent increase in reports is meaningless—statistically—in the context of a year’s worth of take-offs and landings.

But, of course, there’s more to airline safety than statistics, and while statistics can measure how good a controller is doing, ultimately air traffic control is a pass/fail situation. Lately, the system has been passing. Hopefully this new data helps the FAA keep things headed in that direction.

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