FAA Wallowing in Air Travel Blues

The Federal Aviation Administration better fasten its seat belt -- the month of June is off to a turbulent start.

Fresh reports of multiple midair near collisions in New York's heavily trafficked airspace surfaced today along with an investigation opened by the National Transportation Safety Board into a runway incursion in late May at San Francisco International Airport. Last Friday, a computer glitch, compounded by severe weather, caused severe flight delays and cancellations up and down the East Coast.

Across the industry, federal transportation officials confirmed this month that air travel inside the United States -- with 72 percent of domestic flights delayed between January and April -- is the most tardy it has been since record keeping began in 1995.

With a record like this, it could be a long and bumpy summer for the FAA, the federal agency charged with overseeing civil aviation in the United States.

House Democrats are expected to file a broad bill this week that outlines FAA funding, one way the federal government might address some of the problems facing the agency.

"If there is a legislative remedy or there is a need to push the FAA into an internal policy remedy, this would likely be the vehicle," said Jim Berard, communication director for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Berard could not provide specifics of the reauthorization bill, but said it would be the place where federal studies could be mandated and funding would be outlined.

To some FAA critics, the bill provides a glimmer of hope that the agency's record can somehow improve.

"To me, [the FAA] seems like an alcoholic floating around the bar that doesn't seem to know they have a drinking problem," said Phil Barbarello, the regional vice president of the air traffic controllers union.

One way to curtail some of the FAA's problems, Barbarello said, would be to increase the number of air traffic controllers making sure planes don't come dangerously close to crossing paths. The FAA and air traffic control union have been at odds recently over what should be considered proper staffing levels.

The FAA confirmed to ABC News that it is investigating pilot reports about five midair near misses during the month of May involving planes flying into and out of New York and New Jersey airports. In 2006, there were only three incidents of near misses in the same area for the entire year.

The definition of a near miss is two planes flying less than 500 feet apart. Under FAA guidelines, planes are required to remain three miles apart horizontally and 1,000 feet apart vertically. Near-miss reports are voluntarily made by pilots and are based on a pilot's perception of how close planes get to each other. The FAA then investigates the accuracy of the reports using actual data.

The FAA could not confirm any spike in near misses in the area, but did say the incidents in question were not tied to any staffing shortages.

Two of the near misses reported by pilots involved Jet Blue airplanes, two involved Continental flights and one involved an American Eagle aircraft.

Both American Eagle and Continental confirmed to ABC News that pilots had filed near-miss reports.

In a statement released by JetBlue, the airline said that they will work with pilots and the FAA to investigate any incident resembling a near midair collision -- including the May 1 and May 8 flights indicated in the press account.

"Our pilots are trained to handle any event and our customers were never in danger," the JetBlue statement said. While acknowledging the investigation into the two flights, the airline found that the two instances did not meet the FAA criteria for near misses.

One certainty, however, is an increase in the amount of air traffic in the New York and New Jersey area.

In 2006, the number of passengers flying in the New York and New Jersey area hit a record 104,131,809 -- up 4.3 percent from the 2005 total. Likewise, the number of flights in and out of area airports grew by 2.6 percent to 1,222,408.

Already, the numbers for the first quarter of 2007 show continued growth, with another 3.4 percent increase in the number of passengers through March and a 7.1 percent spike in the number of flights.

"We anticipate that to continue not only over the next year but over the next 15 years," said Marc La Vorgna, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. "We see the numbers continuing to skyrocket."

On Monday the NTSB released an advisory announcing that a runway incursion in which two aircraft may have come within 50 feet of one another on intersecting runways at San Francisco International Airport late last month is under investigation.

According to the advisory, the air traffic controller, "forgetting about the arrival airplane," cleared an outgoing flight to take off from a runway that intersected with a flight that was about to land.

In that incident, the flight that landed had to immediately take off again to avoid a plane that had been stopped in the middle of an intersecting runway after an air traffic controller told the pilot to hold. The near collision was categorized by the FAA as an operational error.

Barbarello, the spokesman for the air traffic controllers' union, said that because of staffing shortages, employees are working up to four hours straight in some circumstances. "They're tired," he said.

There were 330 runway incursions in the United States last year, 31 of them serious. Comparatively, the number of incursions so far in 2007 is down -- with just 11 reported serious incidents compared to 21 for the same period last year, according to the FAA.

The FAA has considered many possible ways to deal with the problem and already approved the use of a GPS map system in cockpits to show pilots where their aircraft is on an airfield.

On Friday a computer glitch in the nation's air traffic control system caused flight delays and cancellations up and down the East Coast, the FAA confirmed. The computer was fixed by 11 a.m., an FAA spokesman said, but the impact of the problem dragged deep into the evening.

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