Close calls in the air spur FAA safety push

WASHINGTON — Alarmed by a spate of near-collisions involving airliners, the government is trying to find out why air traffic controllers and pilots are making so many dangerous errors.

In recent months, there have been at least a half-dozen incidents in which airliners came close to colliding with other planes or helicopters — including in Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, Burbank, Calif., and Anchorage, Alaska. In some cases, pilots made last-second changes in direction after cockpit alarms went off warning of an impending crash.

"This spring we had several close calls that got everybody's attention, and I think that's the thing that really keyed us into taking at look at some of the risks, try to identify what we're missing," Robert Tarter, vice president of the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Safety-Air Traffic Organization, told employees in a conference call kicking off the new safety effort.

Just last week, a United Airlines flight waiting to land at Reagan National Airport near Washington came within less than a mile of a Gulfstream business jet that was climbing after taking off from another nearby airport. The United pilot can be heard on an air traffic control recording saying to his controller, "That was close," according to Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., a passenger on the United flight who has listened to the recording.

The FAA has also seen a sharp spike in incidents in which planes violated minimum separation distances, a cornerstone of air traffic safety. Those distances depend on several factors, including an airplane's altitude and its proximity to an airport.

The rate for the most egregious violations of FAA separation standards rose to 3.28 per million flight operations in the nine months ending June 30, up from 2.44 in the full year ending Sept. 30, 2009.

The FAA has also been receiving about 250 to 300 reports a week under new a program that encourages controllers to disclose their mistakes. In exchange, the agency promises not to use the information to punish employees. Instead, the reports are used to spot trends. The program is modeled on a similar program for pilots.