When an American Airlines jet narrowly averted a crash into two Air Force transport planes last month near New York City , a tragedy of immense proportions was avoided, helping the U.S. maintain its sterling recent record in aviation safety.
But, as the Associated Press reports, despite two years without any U.S. airliner fatalities, near accidents are growing more common in the American skies.
According to official numbers from the Federal Aviation Administration, there were 1,889 operation errors (which typically means two planes flying too close to one another) in the 12-month period that ended Sept. 30. That was a marked increase from the operation error totals of 947 and 1,008, respectively, in the two previous years.
The FAA says that new tallying and detection procedures account for much of the increase. Nevertheless, alarming incidents sometimes seem more likely than a free upgrade to first class.
In addition to the New York City incident, the AP reports that in September, a US Airways passenger jet taking off with 95 people aboard almost crashed into a cargo plane in Minneapolis. A few months earlier, another US Airways plane had a close call with a cargo plane during an aborted approach in Anchorage, Alaska.
Air traffic controllers are getting much of the blame. Evan Seeley, a 26 -year-old controller in Ronkonkoma N.Y., recently tried to blow the whistle on what he characterized as a lax culture in the tower, including controllers watching movies and playing with electronic devices. He sent letters to the Transportation Department’s inspector general and Office of Special Counsel detailing his concerns.
But rather than receive encouragement or praise, Seeley was rebuked by the local union and demoted from a manager’s job — which, he says, was in retaliation for his disclosures.
Some members of Congress have taken notice of the upswing in near-accidents. During a recent appearance before a House subcommittee, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt faced some pointed commentary.
“We don’t want to play ‘gotcha’,” said Rep. Thomas Petri, R-Wis., who indicated that he might hold hearings on the subject. “We do want, though, to have people know that we’re concerned and we’re watching.”
Babbitt, who has received praise from many former controllers for his efforts to improve safety, responded that his agency is proud of its record of avoiding air tragedies over the past two years.