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 Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Safety-Air Traffic Organization, told employees in a conference call kicking off the new safety effort.
Aviation expert Denny Kelly said near misses are often caused by human error. But technology could also play a role. Pilots may rely too often on collision-warning systems that can help them avoid a crash.
"As the crews get more and more acclimated to these automatic systems, they're relying on them more, and they're relying less on their own ability to control the aircraft and see other aircraft," Kelly said.
The fear is that, with so many near misses, one of them won't miss.
"If you have enough traffic and enough near misses as a result of that traffic, one of these days, two of them are going to get together," Kelly said. "You are going to have a midair."
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. Generally, planes are required to keep a distance laterally of about 6 miles at high altitudes and nearly 3.5 miles when approaching airports. Planes can be closer during landings.
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. Flight operations include takeoffs, landings and when planes pass from the control of one radar center to another. It's the job of air traffic controllers to keep planes separated.
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.
In response to these warning signs, FAA is convening a summit of employees and management, as well as other safety experts, in Washington on Aug. 17. The event will mark the third time in less than four years the agency has hosted a special meeting to address urgent safety problems. In 2007, FAA held a summit in response to concern about planes coming too close together on runways. Last year, the agency called together airlines and pilots unions in response to revelations about the training, pay, experience and work schedules of pilots at regional airlines following a crash near Buffalo, N.Y., that killed 50 people.
Officials are asking every air traffic controller, as well as other employees involved in air traffic operations, to tell them before the meeting what are the biggest safety problems they see. FAA officials are also fanning out to major airlines for meetings with their chief pilots. They want to stress the importance of pilots using the correct terminology when talking to air traffic controllers to avoid confusion, and that they shouldn't skip routine but important radio contacts with controllers.
By this fall, FAA officials hope to restart a program that gives controllers a chance to ride in cockpit jumpseats so that they can experience air traffic operations from a pilot's perspective. The program was discontinued after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when the government cracked down on access to airline cockpits.
Although FAA has a history of rocky relationships with its unions, the new safety push is backed by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
"We see the errors also," Dale Wright, NATCA's safety director, said in the conference call last Thursday.
NATCA spokesman Doug Church said the union believes "we can help the FAA identify and address safety concerns in the system. ... We appreciate the level of collaboration that's now happening with the FAA on this."
The recent incidents have also spotlighted long-standing concerns about the experience level of the controller work force. Many of today's controllers were hired in 1981 after President Ronald Reagan fired striking controllers, and they are now retiring. FAA has hired 7,000 controllers in the past five years, but union officials say the rate of washouts has been high. They have complained that training waves of inexperienced controllers while trying to handle traffic at the nation's busiest radar facilities endangers safety.
Major airline crashes have dropped dramatically over the past decade due in large part to advances in safety equipment in cockpits, such as the collision warning systems. However, one consequence has been that it's easy for controllers and pilots to lose their edge, said former Transportation Department Inspector General Mary Schiavo.
"People come to rely on the equipment and the collision warning systems, and that's bad," Schiavo said.
NBC DFW's Scott Gordon contributed to this report.