The Error-Prone Skies? Reported Air-Traffic Mistakes Increase 81% Since 2007

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Travelers, beware: The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has announced an 81% increase in reported air-traffic errors since 2007.

More than 700 million people travel on U.S. airlines every year, and that number is projected to increase 3.5% in 2011, so the news that the number of reported air-traffic mistakes has increased by 81% since 2007 affects a large swath of the American public. The FAA announcement specifies that 1,887 operation errors were reported by air-traffic controllers last year, including 43 incidents which could have caused a mid-air collision between planes.

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The FAA has insisted that the reported increase does not necessarily reflect a jump in the number of incidents. Instead, the agency says the spike in reported incidents shows that improvements in the system by which errors are reported has played a significant role in catching mistakes. In 2008, a no-fault system was instated, which guarantees employees immunity — except in the most serious lapses — if they give honest accounts of what occurred. But the change also makes it difficult for managers to immediately reprimand or correct the errors that air-traffic controllers make. That coupled with a shortage of air-traffic controllers — not to mention a steep rise in recent years of on-the-job training for new controllers — could make using this information to prevent future near-misses or accidents challenging.

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While the last fatal plane crash occurred just over two years ago in Buffalo, N.Y., close calls are a different story. Hundreds of near-misses are reported to the National Transportation Safety Board every year. In January an American Airlines flight narrowly avoided collision with two Air Force cargo planes 80 miles southeast of New York City; in September a U.S. Airways plane crossed paths with a small cargo aircraft, the two planes coming within just 50 to 100 feet of each other while taking off from Minneapolis. What seems most clear is that errors and near-misses aren’t new, but having passengers be more aware of their occurrence is. Armed with this new knowledge, perhaps the millions of passengers on U.S. airlines will pressure Congress to seek serious change that will make air travel safer.