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WASHINGTON — In a time of unparalleled aviation safety in the United States, reports of mistakes by air traffic controllers have nearly doubled — a seeming contradiction that puzzles safety experts.
The near collision last month of an American Airlines jet with 259 people aboard and two Air Force transport planes southeast of New York City, coupled with the rise in known errors, has raised concerns in Congress that safety may be eroding.
A US Airways plane carrying 95 people crossed paths with a small cargo plane in September, coming within 50 to 100 feet of each other while taking off from Minneapolis. A few months earlier a US Airways Airbus 319 intersected the path of another cargo plane during an aborted landing in Anchorage, Alaska.
In fact, an air traffic controller at the Ronkonkoma, N.Y., radar facility that handled the American plane says he complained about a lax atmosphere at the facility — the second busiest of its kind in the nation.
Controller Evan Seeley, 26, said he ran afoul of the local union when he tried to prevent sick leave and scheduling abuses aimed at increasing overtime pay. Even more disturbing were Seeley’s charges that controllers sometimes watch movies and play with electronic devices during nighttime shifts when traffic is slower. He said he has sent his complaints to the Transportation Department’s inspector general and to the Office of Special Counsel, which investigates whistleblower charges. He claims his recent demotion from his position as a front-line manager was related to his attempts to correct problems.
Union officials called Seeley’s claims “wild” and “baseless.”
In the 12 months ending on Sept. 30, 2010, there were 1,889 operation errors — which usually means aircraft coming too close together, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. That was up from 947 such errors the year before and 1,008 the year before that. Before 2008 the FAA used a different counting method.
The FAA administrator says the higher number of known errors is due to better reporting and technology that can determine more precisely how close planes are in the air.
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.
The situation has sparked concern in Congress. FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt was repeatedly asked about the error increase and Seeley’s claims at a hearing before the House aviation subcommittee earlier this week.
“We don’t want to play ‘gotcha,’” Rep. Thomas Petri, R-Wis., the panel’s chairman, told Babbitt. “We do want, though, to have people know that we’re concerned and we’re watching.”
The FAA chief noted the dearth of major accidents. Saturday is to mark 24 months in which there have been no fatal airline accidents. The last was the crash of a regional airliner on Feb. 12, 2009, near Buffalo, N.Y., that killed 50 people.
Babbitt said the rise in errors is because of a new safety program that protects controllers from punishment for mistakes they voluntarily report The 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. It is modeled after a successful error-reporting program for airline pilots.
The program, which started in 2008 and was fully phased in last year, is receiving about 250 reports a week. But safety experts note that those reports generally aren’t counted in FAA’s official error tally and thus don’t explain the surge.