Increase in Near-Collisions of Planes Raises Concerns About Air Traffic Control Competence

Air traffic control is a high stress job, safeguarding thousands of lives every minute, but in the past few months, there has been a marked increase in the number of reported near-collisions in the skies over America, and some are questioning whether that rise should be blamed on the controllers.

As many as one in four air traffic controllers at any given control center are novices, barely out of training, and some of the recent problems in the air provide a frightening picture of the near-accidents in the air that have been avoided.

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Novice Air Traffic Controllers and Your Safety

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On May 21, 2010 in Anchorage, Alaska, a USAirways crew reported that a controller directed them to turn right into the path of a departing plane.

In Houston on April 28, 2010, after a Southwest Airlines flight came dangerously close to a Bell 407 helicopter, the Southwest pilot reported that "it sounded like there was confusion between [the helicopter pilot and the tower controller] about what direction he was supposed to head after takeoff."

Regardless of the causes of those incidents and multiple others in recent months, some say there is clearly a problem in the nation's air traffic controller corps.

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"There is a very high turnover rate," said John Nance, ABC News aviation analyst. "That almost begs the question: do we have enough people supervising?"

The problem dates back to the 1981 strike by air traffic controllers, when President Ronald Reagan fired the lot of them. The young controllers who were hired to replace them are now hitting mandatory retirement age, forcing the FAA to train a brand-new crop of twenty-somethings.

The FAA has planned for this, hiring and training some 17,000 new controllers in a decade. But inevitably, critics, including some in the controllers' union, argue that all those novices make the system less safe.

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Today, the Washington Post reported that so far this year, there have been 22 near-misses in the skies above the Washington, D.C. area.

That's more than took place in all of 2009, but today, FAA officials insisted those near-misses were not due to inexperienced controllers.

In a statement to ABC News, the FAA wrote that its "rigorous training programs ensure new controllers earn [full] certification while maintaining our high safety standards."

Other aviation experts agreed.

"I have absolute confidence in the air traffic control system today as well as yesterday," said Capt. John Cox, a former US Air pilot and president of Safety Operating Systems. "I think the air traffic controllers are very qualified."

In the future, though, the air traffic control system will likely rely less on humans and more on computers to keep planes from crashing into each other.

"We'll stop trying to use carbon-based human beings with analog brains as digital computers, because that's what we've been trying to do for a long time," said Nance. "Quite frankly, they've done an amazing job, but we cannot as humans be perpetually perfect."

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