Federal authorities say that the deployment of inexperienced air traffic controllers at some of the nation’s busiest airports may explain the soaring number of near-collisions in American skies last year.
As the Associated Press reports, the Department of Transportation, which oversees air traffic through the Federal Aviation Administration, testified before a Senate subcommittee that the number of controllers in training has spiked compared to years past, especially at some major airports.
According to Inspector General Calvin Scovel, 25 percent of the controllers today are in training, compared to 15 percent in 2004. At LaGuardia Airport in New York City, the trainees make up 39 percent of the controllers guiding planes as they take off and land. At a regional radar center handling flights in and out of Denver, 43 percent of the controllers were in training.
Ideally, there would be fewer controllers in training at the more challenging airports, Scovel said.
The number of operation errors, which typically means two planes flying too close to one another, jumped to 1,889 in the year ending Sept. 30, 2010, a huge jump from the 947 and 1,008 errors, respectively, in the two previous years.
The FAA said that new counting methods, including a program that encourages controllers to own up to their mistakes without fear of reprisal, were responsible for much of the increase. “We’re taking the position it’s not necessarily the amount of operational errors that’s increasing — we’re capturing [more of] them, and that’s a good thing,” said FAA chief Randy Babbitt, who also testified.
The number of staff in training is expected to continue to rise, as many of the 15,000 controllers working at U.S. airports today are coming up for retirement. As a result, 11,000 new controllers are expected to be manning towers by 2019.
The air traffic system has been under scrutiny in recent months for a series of incidents in which controllers working overnight shifts were missing from their posts, or sleeping on the job. While no crashes occurred as a result, a number of planes landed without assistance.
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