While the FAA has made progress in reducing operational errors and runway incursions, Transportation Department inspector general Kenneth Mead warned the agency last month that the number of these incidents is still too high considering the potentially catastrophic results of a midair collision or a runway accident.
In fiscal year 2002, there was an average of one runway incursion and three operational errors each day. The two most serious types of incursion occurred on average once every 10 days, and the most serious operational errors took place once every eight days.
An operational error occurs when an air traffic controller does not ensure that FAA separation standards are maintained between two airplanes. As an example, the report cited a case in which an Atlanta Tracon controller directed an airliner and a business jet onto converging courses. The two aircraft were about seven seconds from a midair collision when the pilots’ evasive actions averted an accident.
The DOT inspector general noted that in FY 2002 at least one commercial aircraft was involved in a serious runway incursion or operational error once every 10 days. Because operational errors that involve commercial aircraft could place hundreds of passengers at risk, Mead called on the FAA to track commercial, GA and military aircraft separately.
To stress how serious midair collisions can be, the report called to mind the collision last July between a Russian Tu-154 passenger airliner and a Boeing 757 freighter over southern Germany at an altitude of about 35,000 feet. A total of 71 people were killed.
For statistical purposes, the FAA lists only runway incursions that occur at a towered airport whenever an aircraft, vehicle, person or object on the ground creates a collision hazard or results in a loss of separation with an aircraft landing or taking off or intending to land or take off. As an example, it cited an October 2001 accident in Milan, Italy, when an MD-80 taking off in poor visibility from Linate Airport struck a Citation that entered the runway by mistake. A total of 118 people were killed in that accident.
A similar incident occurred at Los Angeles International Airport in March 2002 when a 737 entered an active runway without authorization as a 757 was taking off. The two aircraft were separated by only 200 feet vertically. Since 1990, nine runway accidents in the U.S. have claimed 49 lives and damaged 16 aircraft. And that doesn’t include a November 1996 accident in Quincy, Ill.–in which 14 people in two aircraft died–because it was at a nontower airport.
The DOT IG said in a letter to FAA Administrator Marion Blakey that the objective of the audit was to determine whether the FAA is making progress in reducing operational errors and runway incursions, and whether the agency implemented the recommendations in previous reports issued in December 2000 and June 2001.
Although Mead said FY 2002 operational errors decreased 11 percent to 1,061 and runway incursions dropped 17 percent to 339 from FY 2001 levels, he chastised the FAA for classifying many operational errors as “moderate” severity when in fact some of these errors are very serious.
“For example, the FAA rated an error as moderate that was less than 12 seconds from a midair collision,” the report said. “The FAA needs to modify its rating system to more accurately identify the most serious operational errors, focus its resources on reducing them and ensure that controllers receive the appropriate training for high-risk errors.”
The IG said that in FY 2002 the FAA changed its goal from reducing the total number of operational errors to reducing the most serious incidents. But it missed its goal of having no more than 568 operational errors with less than 80 percent of required separation between aircraft, with 617 such errors.
Mead also accused the FAA of understating the safety risk of the most serious operational errors. “Only 61 of 1,103 operational errors were rated high risk,” the DOT watchdog said. “However, we found another 65 errors rated in the high end of moderate that, in our opinion, were also very serious (within 30 seconds of a midair collision).”
Further, the FAA procedures do not require remedial training when controllers have multiple operational errors or for controllers who have operational errors that pose a moderate or high safety risk. Instead, the rules state only that training may be provided and therefore are open to interpretation, a situation that has raised concerns from the NTSB.
As it did with operational errors, the FAA also changed its goal for reducing the total number of runway incursions in FY 2002 to reducing the most serious incidents. Its goal was to have no more than 53 runway incursions in the two highest risk categories, those incursions that barely avoided or had significant potential for a collision.
The DOT credited the FAA with making progress in reducing runway incursions in the two highest risk categories overall and in reducing the number of those that involve commercial aircraft. In FY 2002, the FAA met its goal with 37 high-risk incursions, a decrease of 30 percent from FY 2001.
“The FAA’s improved national oversight and focus on more serious runway incursions contributed to the FAA’s progress in reducing runway incursions in FY 2002,” the DOT IG acknowledged. “However, we also found that a reduction in air traffic operations, as well as site-specific improvements at airports, contributed to the FAA’s progress.”
Among the recommendations Mead passed to Blakey: improve oversight of regions and facilities that do not show progress in reducing operational errors; implement memory enhancement training for controllers; reexamine and expand the severity classification for the most serious operational errors; implement mandatory training requirements for controllers who make multiple or moderate- and high-rated operational errors; evaluate the effect the controller-in-charge program has had on operational errors at each facility; and implement recommendations from technological reviews completed at 13 airports that had 10 or more runway incursions between 1997 and 2000. The FAA was asked to respond by May 3.