FAA Responds to Concerns of Near Mid-Air Collisions

Stephen Stock investigates how at-risk commerical airline passengers are

Thursday, Apr 26, 2012  |  Updated 2:31 PM PDT
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FAA Responds to Concerns of Near Mid-Air Collisions

AP

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The FAA responded in an email to written questions regarding close calls. The unedited text from that exchange appears below.

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Q1: What does the FAA do to mitigate NMAC’s, airspace violations, excursions and incursions?

A1: The FAA thoroughly investigates every incident that occurs and develops mitigations based on the unique circumstances of the event. Mitigations can include controller training, changes in phraseology, new air traffic control procedures, new airfield signs and lighting.

Q2: As noted by US Rep. John Mica and others, the data shows that while there was a drop off in incidents from 2000 through 2006-2007 during the last three years there has been an increase in those numbers and the trend line is going back up again.

Granted, there has been a change in definition of what constitutes an NMAC but that change came only in 2010 and this trend started before that. Why are these close calls trending up again? What’s the FAA doing about that?

A2: I think you're confusing the term Near Midair Collision (NMAC) with "loss of separation". A NMAC is a report that is based on a pilot's perspective, not on hard data. A loss of separation is based on hard data and is something we thoroughly track.

A "loss of separation" should not be called a "close call" because the vast majority are not. We maintain large safety bubbles around aircraft to prevent a loss of separation from quickly turning into a serious incident.

Concerning increases in airborne losses of separation, I can tell you the following: Over the past several years, the FAA has transitioned to a non-punitive error reporting system at its air traffic facilities. This cultural change in safety reporting has produced a wealth of information to help the FAA identify potential risks in the system and take swift action to address them.

The new system has resulted in a higher number of reports of incidents involving loss of the required separation between aircraft than in previous years, but the number of incidents includes events that never would have been identified and understood under the previous system. These events occur in much less than 1 percent (0.00141 percent) of the operations in the system over the course of a year.

Q3: While the number of these close calls is very small compared to the number of flights and miles flown, it only takes one airborne incident to create serious tragedy. Does the public need to be concerned with these close calls?

A3: These events occur in much less than 1 percent (0.00141 percent) of the operations in the system over the course of a year. A "loss of separation" should not be called a "close call" because the vast majority are not. We maintain large safety bubbles around aircraft to prevent a loss of separation from quickly turning into a serious incident.

Q4: Critics of the FAA, such as former FAA manager and now whistleblower Gabe Bruno, say the FAA waits until an accident or incident before seeking to affect change (such as the movement to study fatigue and training post Colgan crash). What is the FAA’s response to that?

A4: The FAA operates the world's safest aviation system and continuously strives to make the system even safer.

We have transitioned from a safety system that did forensic analyses of past accidents to a system that seeks to identify precursors to possible future accidents. Our goal is to collect as much safety data as possible from pilots, air traffic controllers, aircraft manufacturers and others so we can spot trends before they result in accidents.

We aggressively take action when we identify a potentially unsafe condition. We also work with international aviation safety organizations so we can share our knowledge and best practices with other countries and they can share their knowledge and best practices with us.

Q5: Bruno and a half dozen pilots tell us they believe the actual incidence of ‘close calls’ (NMAC, airborne conflicts, airspace violations) is much higher than reported either in NASA ASRS data or by the FAA. What is the FAA’s response to that?

A5: The FAA collects many different sources of aviation safety data and incorporates it into the Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing (ASIAS) system. ASIAS connects 46 safety databases across the industry and is expected to expand eventually to 64 databases.

NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) represents just a small part of the data the FAA collects through ASIAS. While ASRS data can be useful, it has some inherent limitations. The reports represent a subjective opinion or perception about an event and do not always include complete information.

Because the reports are anonymous, the FAA cannot investigate or validate the data. In addition, NASA only publicly releases a small portion of the data, which makes it unreliable for statistical analysis purposes. ASIAS is able to overcome these limitations by leveraging multiple databases to analyze safety issues.

The entire aviation community encourages and relies on voluntary reporting to maintain existing safety levels and continue to make safety improvements. Since the introduction of ASRS, the FAA has developed other more useful, robust voluntary reporting systems with the airline industry and unions.

Unlike ASRS, those formal programs allow the FAA to review and validate voluntarily-reported data from pilots, mechanics, flight attendants, dispatchers, and air traffic controllers. The identity of those who make reports is protected by law, but the process allows for their participation in resolving potential safety issues.

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