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Unsafe skies, airports?

Report says air traffic controller errors, other incidents continue to rise

October 14, 2011
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air travelDespite steps taken to improve safety at and around the nation's airports, mistakes made by air traffic controllers have nearly doubled in the last three years, according to a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Although changes in FAA reporting policies and procedures may have contributed to some of the numbers, the GAO says the figures indicate an increase in the actual occurrence of airborne operational errors.

Another disturbing trend noted in the report -- in light of recent incidents transportation-related terrorism -- is the growing number of runway incursions -- the unauthorized presence of an airplane, vehicle on person on a runway. The GAO says the FAA met its interim goals of reducing this number in 2009 and 2010, but the overall rate of incursions at towered airports has trended steadily upward. In fiscal year 2004, there were 11 incursions per million operations at these airports; by fiscal year 2010, the rate increased to 18 incursions per million operations.

"The nation's aviation system is arguably the safest in the world, but close calls involving aircraft or other vehicles at or near airports are common, occurring almost daily," the report says. "The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) provides oversight of the terminal area and has taken action to improve safety, but has been called upon by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and others to take additional steps to improve its oversight."

Since 2007, FAA has taken several steps to further improve safety at and around airports, including implementing procedural and technological changes to improve runway safety, proposing a rule that would require airports to establish risk-management plans that include the ramp areas where aircraft are serviced, collecting more data on safety incidents, and shifting toward risk-based analysis of airborne aviation safety information. Several of these initiatives are intended to better identify systemic issues in air traffic safety.

The GAO said enhanced oversight and additional information about surface and airborne incidents could help improve safety in the terminal area.
The FAA oversight in the terminal area is currently limited to certain types of incidents, notably runway incursions and certain airborne incidents, and does not include runway overruns or incidents in ramp areas. In addition, the agency lacks data collection processes, risk-based metrics, and assessment frameworks for analyzing other safety incidents such as runway overruns, incidents in ramp areas, or a wider range of airborne errors.
"Further, changes to reporting processes and procedures make it difficult to assess safety trends, and existing data may not be readily available to decision makers, including those at the regional and local levels," said the report's authors. "As a result, FAA may have difficulty assessing recent trends in safety incidents, the risks posed to aircraft or passengers in the terminal area, and the impact of the agency's efforts to improve safety."

Among the GAO's recommendations to the FAA:

  • Extend oversight of terminal area safety to include runway overruns and ramp areas
  • Develop risk-based measures for runway safety incidents
  • Improve information sharing about incidents.

The Department of Transportation agreed to consider the recommendations and provided clarifying information about efforts made to improve runway safety, which GAO incorporated.

The GAO analyzed data and documents from the FAA and interviewed federal and industry officials in order to evaluate recent actions FAA has taken to improve safety in the terminal area; recent trends in terminal area safety and any additional actions FAA could take to improve safety in the terminal area. Comprehensive data was not available for runway overruns or incidents in ramp areas.

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