Controller trainees straining air traffic system

/ Source: The Associated Press

A surge in errors by air traffic controllers appears to be at least partly a real increase and not just the result of better error reporting as Federal Aviation Administration officials claim, a government watchdog said Tuesday.

Also, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt disclosed that the agency is investigating two additional cases of controllers falling asleep on the job, both in January at radar centers that handle high altitude air traffic.

One controller found sleeping at his work station in Los Angeles has been suspended pending the outcome disciplinary proceedings, the FAA said later in a statement. The other controller, in Fort Worth, Texas, was observed with his eyes closed while he was supposed to be working. He was reprimanded. In all, the FAA has disclosed seven instances of controllers sleeping on the job this year.

Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin Scovel said there has been a 39 percent increase in errors at air traffic control facilities that handle aircraft at high altitudes even though there's been no change in recent years in automated error counting equipment at those facilities.

"That would indicate an absolute increase," Scovel told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation aviation subcommittee.

Overall, errors in which planes come too close together in the air increased 53 percent from 2009 to 2010. It's the job of controllers to keep aircraft separated at safe distances.

This is one job where you don't want to be caught napping.  Click here to see what our cartoonists think!

The increase in errors, as well as a series of incidents in March and April in which controllers fell asleep on the job or made high-profile mistakes, has raised concern in Congress about the safety of the nation's air traffic system.

Babbitt, also testifying, attributed the increase in errors to policy changes that encourage controllers to disclose errors without fear of punishment and to an automated error reporting system that is being phased in at regional radar centers that handle airport approaches and departures.

However, errors disclosed under the voluntary, non-punitive reporting program aren't counted in the FAA's official error tally. That means they can't account for the increase in errors, Scovel said.

But Babbitt said some controllers may be voluntarily reporting errors twice — once to the official tally and once to the nonpunitive reporting program.

"We don't know and neither does FAA at this point," Scovel said. "It could be better reporting practices. It could be an increase in errors too."

The FAA has been using information gathered through the non-punitive error reporting program to spot trends and take actions to head off problems, Babbitt said. Problems identified though the program ranged from fogged windows to risky movement of ground equipment, he said.

"This is ultimately a very positive change that will enhance safety by allowing us to spot trends," Babbitt said.

Scovel also urged that the FAA be guided by medical science when deciding whether to allow controllers to have scheduled nap breaks during overnight shifts — something sleep scientists recommend. Babbitt and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood have said paying controllers to sleep on the job is unacceptable.

It would be "cold comfort" to the family of a victim of an air crash caused by a controller error that the controller wasn't allowed to sleep on the job, Scovel said.

Greg Belenky, a sleep expert at Washington State University, said all night shift workers suffer from fatigue no matter how employers try to manipulate shift schedules. The only solution that really works, he said, is allowing brief naps during night shifts.

The head of the air traffic controllers' union said a large increase in new controllers who need on-the-job training is partly responsible for the increase in errors. The FAA plans to hire 11,000 new controllers through 2019.

All those new controllers have to receive on-the-job training from current controllers, placing a serious strain on air traffic operations, Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, testified.

Babbitt disagreed. About 25 percent of controllers are currently in training, a share that is down significantly compared with the last few years and is more in line with the norm, he said.

"We're very comfortable with that," he said.

In response to questioning by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., Rinaldi acknowledged that some air traffic controllers moonlight. He said it was more common for less experienced controllers earning lower salaries to hold second and third jobs prior to 2009, when the union and the Obama administration reached a contract agreement that increased controller salaries.

"That's stunning to me," Rockefeller said. "That's like asking for trouble. How do you make the case that this doesn't cause sleeplessness and bad judgment?"

There is no prohibition on outside jobs in the union's contract with the FAA, Rinaldi said.