Nightly News   |  September 12, 2013

Number of airline ‘close calls’ nearly doubles

Air traffic controllers have to safely navigate 70,000 flights daily. The Federal Aviation Administration says the number of close calls nearly doubled within the last year. NBC's Tom Costello reports.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> we mentioned earlier there is news tonight regarding safety in the skies and the difficult job air traffic controllers have to keep 70,000 flights every day properly separated in the sky. the f.a.a. reports the number of close calls nearly doubled last year, but that's because they are doing a better job of tracking them. our report on all of it tonight from nbc's tom costello. [ simultaneous voices ]

>> reporter: across the country the nation's air traffic controllers handle 133 million takeoffs and landings each year, nearly all going according to the plan. the faa reports that in 2012 there were nearly 4400 cases of planes getting too close to each other -- more than double the number from the year before. and 18 near collisions on runways. the reason? the faa says a new computer system automatically records every time two planes violate the faa 's flight separation rule which is require 3.5 miles or 1,000 feet of vertical separation near airports.

>> some of them are a breach of air space where there was never really a collision imminent. it's that the reporting criteria says if you lose separation the faa needs to know.

>> reporter: on july 31, 2012 , a very close call at washington's reagan national airport when three regional jets got far too close to each other as controllers tried to vector them around thunderstorms.

>> we were cleared at the river back there. what happened?

>> stand by. we are trying. stand by.

>> we really don't spsh.

>> we have to get on the ground here pretty quick.

>> reporter: the faa 's new reporting system will no longer rely solely on pilots and controllers to self-report mistakes. they are seeing a drop in the percentage of serious close calls. in a statement the air trafficle controllers union says maintaining the safety of the world's largest, most efficient national air space requires constant vigilance and focus.

>> we need to take a look at the fact that the number did rise. and by doing that now we are going to be able to actually pinpoint more of the areas we need to work on.

>> reporter: intense focus on ensuring the nation's air travellers fly safely. tom costello, nbc news, washington.