DOT Inspector General Paints a Troubling Picture of FAA and Air Traffic Controllers

May 24, 2011 4:10pm

ABC News' Lisa Stark reports: At a hearing on Capitol Hill today, the Department of Transportation's Inspector General Calvin Scovel III testified about recent problems with air traffic controllers –- everything from controllers falling asleep on the job to making operational errors that caused planes to fly too close to each other.

Scovel told the Senate subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety and Security that there are four areas that are particularly challenging for the FAA: identifying and addressing the cause of operational errors, mitigating fatigue, adequately staffing air traffic control facilities and training new controllers.

Scovel also said that FAA statistics show a recent significant increase in operational errors but the cause of this increase remains unclear.  

"Until FAA takes action to develop comprehensive data… conduct astute trend analyses, and develop timely action plans to address controller workforce risks and vulnerabilities, FAA cannot ensure it has a sufficient number of alert, competent, and certified controllers needed to effectively manage the challenges of the next generation of air traffic control," Scovel said.

According to FAA data, the number of operational errors by controllers increased by 53 percent – from 1,234 to 1,887 between fiscal year 2009 and 2010. The FAA says it believes the increase is due to a new reporting system that allows controllers to report operational errors without fear of reprisal.

The inspector general indicated that FAA has not yet fully put in place recommendations to identify the causes of controller fatigue or solutions to mitigate the risk.

"Let’s be clear on one thing here and now: it’s unacceptable for a controller to fall asleep on the job.  If they do, they should be removed immediately.  That part is non-negotiable," Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said at the hearing. "Someone 5,000 feet in the air should never wonder if the controller on the ground has nodded off."

The FAA is working to hire and train nearly 11,000 new controllers. The inspector general found that the process does not adequately consider new controllers’ knowledge, skills and ability when assigning them to facilities, and that critical facilities have a high percentage of controllers in training. 

"I have communicated that, even though we do the right thing over 99.9 percent of the time, we have to do better," FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said today. "We cannot have the flying public believe, even for an instant, that they cannot trust the men and women who are responsible for getting them to their destination safely.  So I am asking the workforce to rededicate ourselves to the concept of professionalism."

Currently, new controllers comprise up to 25 percent of the ATC workforce compared to 15 percent in 2004. However, this percentage can vary extensively by location. For example, Seattle TRACON has 46 percent of its controller workforce in training, while St. Louis TRACON has no controllers in training.

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