Aircraft collisions that are “barely avoided” have increased more than 600 percent in the past four years, according to data from the Federal Aviation Administration, potentially putting thousands of passengers’ lives at risk.
Although the agency’s internal watchdog said the U.S. still has the safest air transportation system in the world, investigators don’t know what is causing the rise in near accidents.
Air travel has faced a difficult few months, first with a debate in Congress over furloughing air traffic controllers as part of budget cuts. On July 6, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crashed at San Francisco International Airport, killing three. Investigators are uncertain what caused the crash, the first fatal crash of a large jet in the United States in more than a decade.
The San Francisco crash and its aftermath have renewed a focus on the FAA’s safety record and the findings of a little-noticed internal survey of the agency’s track record released this spring. The agency last week announced new training mandates for pilots, requiring first officers on U.S. passenger and cargo planes to have 1,500 hours of flight time — the same as captains — rather than the current 250 hours.
The “serious errors” are caused by air traffic controllers not leaving enough distance, or “separation,” between planes, Jeffrey Guzzetti, the Transportation Department assistant inspector general, told Congress in April. There were 37 reported near collisions in 2009, but that number skyrocketed to an estimated 275 in 2012, investigators said.
Incidences of planes getting too close but aren’t in serious danger of collisions are also on the upswing. Errors remained relatively flat from 2006 to 2009, but rose from 1,200 to 1,900 in less than two years. The inspector general’s office estimated that the number rose again sharply, to 2,500, when the numbers for fiscal 2012 are compiled.
But the inspector general cautioned that it’s impossible to get an exact count because FAA collection of data is incomplete — meaning the number of accidents could be higher. Investigators noted that FAA methods for analyzing the data often missed finding the “root causes and safety trends” of such incidents.
During a February investigation, FAA officials suggested that the increase in near collisions was because of more thorough reporting of such incidents. Although the IG agreed reporting was improving, it said errors and mistakes are still on the rise.
A spokesman for Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo, New Jersey Republican and chairman of the House Transportation subcommittee dealing with aviation issues, said Congress is monitoring FAA efforts to stop near collisions and that the safety of the “flying public is the first and foremost concern.”
The inspector general is concerned that staffing shortages are hampering the agency’s ability to investigate the near collisions. At the start of 2012, the agency had 300 personnel who conducted investigations on at least a part-time basis. By February this year, that number had dwindled to 16, though the FAA announced that it planned to hire more people.
It wasn’t the only staffing area where the inspector general said is coming up short. The watchdog is also worried that the FAA doesn’t have enough aircraft safety inspectors.
Over the past three years, the FAA has reported safety inspector shortages six times. A new data model used to predict shortages estimated that the agency could be short between 390 and 935 safety inspectors. But FAA officials said they aren’t fully confident in the model’s accuracy and did not cite the data in their annual budget report to Congress, each time requesting several hundred fewer inspectors than the data suggested were needed.
But the current method the agency uses to determine how many employees it needs is flawed, inspectors said.
“The model is faulty — containing incomplete, inaccurate, and outdated data — and cannot be relied on to determine the number and placement of inspectors needed,” said a report released last month.
In 2006, Congress asked the National Research Council to find a way to fix the FAA’s staffing problems. But inspectors said the FAA’s current system ignores the NRC recommendations and is costing more. The council’s suggestion to fix staffing levels was estimated to cost $1.2 million. The FAA already has spent $9.9 million using the system the IG considered flawed and expects to spend an additional $2.2 million per year maintaining it.
“Without a reliable inspector staffing model, [the] FAA’s process for assessing the number of inspectors and analysts does not differ significantly from prior methods that the NRC deemed ineffective,” the inspector general’s office said.
FAA officials agreed with the inspector general, saying they were aware of the staffing issues before the investigation started. Agency leaders said they are working to fix their data collection so they know just how many safety inspectors they need.
“The model under review was only an initial effort, and was intended to be refined as the project matured,” according to a response from the FAA. “We now have sufficient knowledge of the current model and how it behaves and to implement further improvements in the accuracy of the databases feeding the model.”