SoCal Home to Most Air Traffic Errors: Audit

Southern California Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON ) showed the highest increase, a 473% year-to-year jump in operational errors


The San Diego hub managing air traffic for most of Southern California has the highest reported number of errors in the country according to a federal audit.

The report from the Department of Transportation shows mistakes by air traffic controllers in the region rose more than 473 percent from 2009 to 2010.

Ten facilities saw the largest percentage of errors, according to the audit released Feb. 27., ranging from the event of two planes arriving at the same altitude on side-by-side runways to planes arriving at unexpected altitudes or positions.

Southern California Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON), based in San Diego, showed the highest increase in errors with 189 reported errors in 2010, up from 33 reported errors the year before, according to the report.

Central Florida, Houston, Miami and the Potomac facilities round out the top five facilities reporting more than or nearly twice the number of errors than the previous year.

Nationally, the number of reported operational errors overall rose 50 percent.

The SCT is the world's busiest approach control, handling more than 2 million aircraft per year including those planes flying in and out of Lindbergh Field.

Controllers are responsible for managing the 7,000 aircraft in U.S. airspace at any given time and providing instructions to pilots to maintain those standards. While staffing concerns have increased with the recent sequester cuts, the report says there are a number of factors to blame.

Improved radar and other tools as well as the implementation of a system that automatically reports errors have helped the FAA review mistakes as or soon after they occur. 

Pilot "read back" has been given greater importance. If the pilot repeats the information incorrectly and the controller doesn't catch it, that is reported as an error.

Also, the Southern California TRACON had been running under a waiver allowing landing aircraft to be closer than normally allowed. That waiver was revoked in 2010.

When explaining the staffing challenges faced by the FAA, the audit states that the agency has 16 staff members investigating these so-called "close calls" by aircraft.

Due to the recent federal budget cuts, the FAA has said it plans on closing more than 100 air traffic control towers at smaller airports nationwide.

In addition, overnight shifts at air traffic control facilities could be scrapped at three airports, including Chicago's Midway according to NBCChicago.

The audit recommended increased reporting of "separation losses" and suggested the FAA not only hire the staff needed to review all error reports but also review the effectiveness of its training.

Ian Gregor, Public Affairs Manager with FAA Pacific Region tried to put the audit in perspective.

In 2010, there were a total of 133,649,786 tower, TRACON and en route air traffic control operations he said.

A total of 1,887 errors were reported, indicating that such reports occurred in 0.001412 percent of the time according to Gregor.

The FAA released this official statement:

The FAA is committed to conducting safe operations throughout the National Airspace System. In January 2012, the FAA significantly changed the way it reports, analyzes and acts upon safety data, including the loss of separation. These changes improve the use of the Air Traffic Safety Action program (ATSAP), a non-punitive reporting system, and the Traffic Analysis and Review Program (TARP), which electronically identifies losses of separation. As a result, the FAA has seen a dramatic increase in reporting, and is now collecting unprecedented amounts of qualitative safety data through ATSAP and quantitative data from TARP. Validation and analysis have greatly enhanced the agency’s ability to identify and prioritize risk, then mitigate it through the most effective means available, including training, procedures and technological improvements.

One local business traveler was shocked by the details in the report.

"I travel every week so that puts a little fear in my skin, sure," traveler Dave Herbst said.  "I think now more than ever we're relying on air travel and it would concern me to know that there's less people capable of getting us where we need to go."

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