Safety Lapses Up in U.S. Aviation
With all the Olympic news, you might have missed a very important aviation story out of our nation's capital. A plane landing at Reagan National Airport was headed into two planes that had just taken off of the runway.
The Washington Post, which broke the story, said the instruction to the arriving plane to turn abruptly came about 12 seconds before a possible collision.
An Associated Press story two days later featured top federal officials quibbling about the Post's reporting. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood objected to calling the incident a “near miss” and other suggestions of laxity on the part of the FAA controllers or the pilots were “explained.”
LaHood and FAA Administrator Raul Huerta did identify the three flights, but claimed that the errors allowing the aircraft to fly toward each other, with one descending and two ascending on the same heading, were resolved with time to spare.
LaHood refused to discuss what may have happened if the planes had not been diverted by the air traffic controller. The 12 seconds in the Post article is right: two aircraft were flying toward each other “closing" at 284 mph. The aircraft passed much closer than 2.4 miles.
Air Traffic Controllers failed to coordinate a change in operations with the arriving plane. As winds shift, both arrivals and departures are changed to upwind. These mode changes are complex. In this relatively simple case, three different FAA centers and several aircraft were involved.
At hub airports throughout the country, including at MSP, FAA controllers deal with high concentrations of departing and arriving flights in the morning and late afternoon peaks. MSP approaches an operation every minute on its main parallel runways.
The Washington Post story used FAA numbers to show incidents like the one in DC are increasing nationwide, up 63% on a per annual flight basis ("1,234 operational errors in fiscal 2009; 1,887 in fiscal 2010 with more than a million more flights in 2009 than 2010").
A September 2010 near miss at MSP was an admitted controller error investigated by NTSB. In the two years prior to that, NWA/Delta moved hundreds of air crews and systems operations (ground/communications/flight planning) workers away from MSP, replacing them with a mixed group of aircrews, different aircraft, and systems that were consolidated into a Delta subsidiary from several regional operators. Meanwhile, the FAA operated under continuing resolutions for about 7 years until last February, and the new funding is frozen at previous levels.
Even with new funding, potential safety and communication issues persist at MSP due to heavy traffic at peak hours. Peak rates involve aircraft using the same runway-departure, arrival, departure, arrival, etc. Because approaching planes cannot stop, or even slow down much, a slow departure or an aircraft prematurely on the runway (incursion) leads to frequent "fly-arounds" at MSP.
Add to these complications less experienced pilots. Smaller regional contract operators fly roughly half MSP's flights.