WASHINGTON — In a time of unparalleled aviation safety in the United States, reports of mistakes by air traffic controllers have nearly doubled — a seeming contradiction that puzzles safety experts.
The near collision last month of an American Airlines jet with 259 people aboard and two Air Force transport planes southeast of New York City, coupled with the rise in known errors, has raised concerns in Congress that safety may be eroding.
A US Airways plane carrying 95 people crossed paths with a small cargo plane in September, coming within 50 to 100 feet of each other while taking off from Minneapolis. A few months earlier a US Airways Airbus 319 intersected the path of another cargo plane during an aborted landing in Anchorage, Alaska.
In fact, an air traffic controller at the Ronkonkoma, N.Y., radar facility that handled the American plane says he complained about a lax atmosphere at the facility — the second busiest of its kind in the nation.
Controller Evan Seeley, 26, said he ran afoul of the local union when he tried to prevent sick leave and scheduling abuses aimed at increasing overtime pay. Even more disturbing were Seeley's charges that controllers sometimes watch movies and play with electronic devices during nighttime shifts when traffic is slower. He said he has sent his complaints to the Transportation Department's inspector general and to the office of special counsel, which investigates whistle-blower charges. He claims his recent demotion from his position as a front-line manager was related to his attempts to correct problems.
Union officials called Seeley's claims wild and baseless.
In the 12 months ending Sept. 30, 2010, there were 1,889 operation errors, which usually means aircraft coming too close together, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, up from 947 such errors the year before.
The FAA administrator says the higher number of known errors is due to better reporting and technology that can determine more precisely how close planes are in the air.
Very few of the errors fall into the most serious category, which could result in pilots taking evasive action to prevent an accident. But those instances also have increased. In the year ending Sept. 30, there were 44 such events, compared with 37 in the prior year.
Speaking before Congress recently, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt noted the dearth of major accidents. Today marks 24 months without a fatal airline accident. The last was the crash of a regional airliner on Feb. 12, 2009, near Buffalo, N.Y., that killed 50 people.