D.C.-area air traffic controllers making mistakes at a record pace

Onboard collision-avoidance systems triggered more than 45 times this year over errors

August 31, 2010|By The Washington Post

On-board systems intended to keep airliners from colliding in midair have been triggered more than 45 times this year in the skies over the Washington area as the air traffic controllers who guide planes to and from the region's airports have made dangerous mistakes at a record-setting pace.

Two of the closest calls this month involved four airplanes carrying a total of 589 people, including one in which a Delta 737 was turned into the potentially deadly turbulent wake of a United 757 as the two planes flew along the Potomac on final approaches to Reagan National Airport.

The Federal Aviation Administration dispatched a safety review team to the Washington region's Potomac Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facility last month after onboard collision avoidance systems were activated as a result of a controller error as a United Airlines flight carrying Wisconsin Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. narrowly missed colliding with a 22-seat Gulfstream business jet.

The team found that "more than 45 such events have been documented this calendar year" in which the avoidance systems have been triggered in Washington airspace, according to an internal FAA summary. The systems, required on all planes carrying 19 or more passengers, kick in and order pilots to take evasive action when their sensors indicate a potential midair collision.

Though few of those events were as harrowing as Sensenbrenner's experience, the review team said controllers were being instructed to allow additional space between airplanes in TRACON airspace.

The Sensenbrenner incident on June 28 was recorded as the 23rd error of the year by Potomac TRACON, which is responsible for three major airports — Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, Dulles International and Reagan National. Since that date, controllers there officially have reported 15 more mistakes, including two this month that were ranked in preliminary internal reports as "category A, yellow." Only a category A, red is considered more serious, usually involving a crash or act of terrorism.

The first involved the two planes on approach to National. In the second, a preliminary report said that a controller jumbled up the call signs of two planes approaching Dulles and directed a United Airlines 757 into the path of a United Express SAAB 340. A later report assigned blame to the 757 pilot as well.

The reason for the reassessment of the pilot's role could not be immediately determined. The FAA spokeswoman most familiar with the Potomac TRACON was traveling on agency business, her office said, and did not respond to a phone message or e-mail.

Five facilities in one

With 38 officially reported errors in eight months, the Potomac facility in Warrenton already has exceeded annual error totals for every year since it began operation in 2003. The consolidated TRACON centralized responsibility for the region's three major airports and smaller operations at Andrews Air Force Base and Richmond International Airport. The control towers at each of those facilities direct planes on the ground and the immediate area around the airport.

TRACON controllers take over once planes are airborne and guide them until they reach altitude, where other controllers take charge for the long haul. TRACON also directs inbound planes, releasing them to the tower when they are within seven miles of landing.

Among the more than 30 issues raised in the report of the "quality control" team was concern that TRACON controllers and tower controllers at Dulles were not playing by the same set of rules, with TRACON using the official playbook as a flexible guideline while Dulles saw it as a mandate from which they "should only rarely deviate." The playbook establishes 14 approaches for managing arrivals and departures at the airport.

"In a nutshell, the two facilities are not cooperating," said a veteran FAA official familiar with the report. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak for the agency. "Historically, the three closely spaced large airports in the Washington area have competed. When they consolidated radar function into one building, they expected the culture to change to one of cooperation. That did not happen; instead, there are five facilities sharing the same roof, parking lot and air traffic manager, and that's about it."

He said the report validated concerns that the dispute over responsibilities could impact safety.

"What is needed is strong leadership because air traffic control is a profession dominated by strong-willed people," he said.

In fact, the review group cited a perception within the TRACON that "management is passive and unresponsive to issues."

FAA records chart rise

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