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Air traffic errors climb

FAA, Raytheon controller training under scrutiny

By Katie Johnston and Beth Healy
Globe Staff / September 5, 2011

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Air traffic controller operational errors - in which planes get too close to each other or to another object - skyrocketed 81 percent between 2007 and 2010, according to federal data, while errors in the Boston region shot up even more, 114 percent.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which provided the information to the Globe via a public records request, attributes the increase to changes in the way errors are reported and categorized. But some controllers, trainers, and the company that used to train controllers blame the rise on a range of other reasons, from inexperienced staffers to the training done by Waltham-based Raytheon Co.

Congress, concerned about the rising errors, has asked the inspector general for the Department of Transportation to investigate the cause. A report is expected in the spring.

Although most air traffic controller mistakes don’t result in injury or death, some controllers say they are increasingly nervous about flying.

“I see the close calls, and it’s frightening,’’ said a longtime Texas air traffic controller, who like other trainers and controllers interviewed did not want to be named to protect his job. “I don’t feel as safe as I did five years ago.’’

The FAA says American aviation is experiencing its safest period ever, based on the rate of fatalities on commercial flights over a three-year period. The last fatal accident on a commercial airline took place in February 2009, when a Colgan Air flight crashed into a residence near Buffalo, N.Y., killing 50 people.

Still, FAA spokeswoman Arlene Salac acknowledged the agency’s concern about the rise in controller errors. She said, in response to an inquiry by the Globe, that federal aviation officials are “reviewing procedures and training throughout the air traffic control system to ensure we are addressing any safety issues and making any necessary changes.’’

The increase in operational errors - from 1,040 in fiscal 2007 to 1,887 in fiscal 2010 - occurred even as total air traffic decreased more than 10 percent during that period.

Some errors have been high-profile, such as when Michelle Obama’s jet had to abort a landing in Washington, D.C., in April so it would not hit a cargo plane on the runway. Others receive little attention, as in January when an American Airlines plane carrying 259 passengers narrowly avoided a midair collision with two Air Force planes near New York City.

The last time an air traffic controller was blamed in part for a fatal accident was January 2010, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, when a Piper plane flew into a mountain ridge in Hawaii, killing the pilot and sole passenger.

The majority of the Boston region’s operational errors occurred at the air route traffic control center in Nashua, which generally controls planes flying above 14,000 feet that are entering or leaving the Boston regional airspace. Only one error was in the most serious category.

Nashua controllers committed 30 errors in fiscal 2010, up from 20 in 2007, according to the FAA data provided to the Globe. During that same period, the operational error incident rate at the Logan International Airport tower grew from zero in 2007 to eight last year. At the radar control facility in Merrimack, N.H., which guides planes within 30 to 50 miles of Logan, errors went from two in 2007 to nine last year.

The last accident at Logan attributed to controller error took place in September 2007, when a Boeing 767 got too close to a single-engine Cessna on the taxiway and the jet blast flipped the Cessna onto its left wing.

Logan officials declined to comment on the rise in errors but expressed confidence in the FAA personnel in the tower.

“I think we have a real good group of controllers here at Logan,’’ said Massport aviation director Edward Freni.

Influx of new controllers Across the country there are more than 15,000 air traffic controllers monitoring an average of 50,000 flights a day. More than half have been hired in the past five years as the FAA scrambles to replace a large pool of retiring controllers.

On any given day up to 25 percent of the controllers on duty are trainees, according to the inspector general.

One Texas air traffic controller estimated three-quarters of the controllers at his facility are new hires. Where 25-year veterans were once the norm, it is now not uncommon to have a room staffed by three people with five years of combined experience, he said.

“Our knowledge base, our experience base, has pretty much been whittled down to almost nothing,’’ he said.

Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the controllers union, told a Senate aviation committee in May that the unprecedented surge in new hires has put a strain on safety.

“Providing on-the-job training to a new hire is extremely demanding,’’ Rinaldi said in his testimony. “This essential training process increases workload for the [on-the-job training instructors] and contributes to fatigue, particularly when these controllers are expected to train on a nearly daily basis.’’

Fatigue has been a major issue for the FAA this year, with a rash of air traffic controllers falling asleep on the job, prompting the agency to revamp its scheduling policies. Fatigue has been a potential contributing factor in several operational errors, according to the transportation safety board.

Controller training starts with a 10-week course at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City, where students learn the basics using hand-held model planes and high-fidelity simulators that replicate specific airports and weather conditions. From there, trainees go out in the field, to airport towers and to windowless rooms at more distant facilities where controllers learn how to space planes apart using radar.

Six years ago, it took three to five years for an air traffic controller to become fully certified, according to the FAA. Now, with specialized instruction and the introduction of high-fidelity simulators, that same process has been cut to between 1 1/2 and three years.

But lately the training program under Raytheon, the Waltham defense contractor, has come under intense scrutiny. Raytheon officials declined to comment on the company’s handling of the contract and directed questions to the FAA.

Raytheon won the $859 million, 10-year training contract in 2008, coming in at a cost 29 percent lower than the FAA’s own estimate to win the business away from a smaller firm that had trained the controllers for two decades.

Last year the Transportation Department inspector general’s office issued a blistering 26-page report about the training program’s problems - from underestimated training requirements that resulted in more than $50 million in cost overruns, to a lack of oversight of the contract.

The inspector general also criticized the FAA for accepting Raytheon’s proposal to slash instructor staffing levels by 30 percent.

In a written response to the inspector general’s draft report, the FAA said it faced “considerable challenges’’ in implementing the contract and admitted “underestimating the full scope of its training requirements.’’

Because of cost overruns and ill-defined training requirements, the inspector general said in May, the FAA has not been able to put new approaches in place that could improve the quality of training.

The FAA said it had not anticipated the financial strain the influx of new air traffic controller trainees would have; to cut costs and adjust to a reduction in controller hiring, Raytheon laid off more than 300 employees at training facilities.

But the result was inadequate training in several locations, according to the inspector general’s report, including New York’s John F. Kennedy airport, and in Denver, Las Vegas, and Akron.

Several FAA trainers and supervisors said the training program suffered as short-staffed training centers were forced to cobble together instruction. A training center in Anchorage lost its entire 14-person staff in February 2010.

Active-duty air traffic controllers were brought in to train new hires, but without regular full-time instructors, a class that normally lasted six months could take a year to complete, a patchwork method of training that is less effective, said former trainer Michael Hessler, who was among those laid off.

“When you cut training, your incident rate goes up,’’ Hessler said.

Since the staff was eliminated, Raytheon has added a handful of trainers at the Anchorage center.

Raytheon declined to comment on the errors or the allegations of mishandling training.

The Waltham company is the subject of a $1 billion lawsuit from Washington Consulting Group Inc., which had been training air traffic controllers for the FAA since 1986. The company alleges Raytheon was awarded the contract after an improper bidding process, and jeopardized the safety of the aviation system by cutting corners in the training program.

“It is less safe flying in an airplane in our country now,’’ said Steven Thomas, an attorney representing Washington Consulting Group, which partnered with the security company Lockheed Martin Corp. on the bid.

Raytheon maintains the competition was managed fairly by the FAA. “WCG’s allegations are both frivolous and irresponsible,’’ spokesman Jonathan Kasle said in a statement to the Globe.

Changes in reporting The FAA contends the higher tally of operational errors can be attributed in large part to changes in the way they are reported.

In 2008, the FAA rolled out a nonpunitive system that grants controllers immunity when they voluntarily report mistakes or safety issues. These errors are not counted as official operational errors. However, the FAA says the more open culture is encouraging controllers to report more errors overall.

The FAA also recently introduced an automated system that is picking up previously undetected errors, although that system is not widely used. Recent changes in the way operational errors are defined could also be driving up the numbers, the agency says, adding to the difficulty of comparing data year to year.

Several aviation experts praised the FAA’s efforts to uncover more errors.

“If the greater reporting means we realize a problem is worse than we had thought, recognizing that before it causes tragedy enhances safety,’’ said Arnold Barnett, an MIT professor who studies aviation safety, some of which has been funded by the FAA.

Still, some who have been at the helm of air traffic controls are concerned.

Said one Texas air traffic controller who retired in 2009 and is now a trainer: “A lack of body bags does not indicate safety.’’

Katie Johnston can be reached at Beth Healy can be reached at