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The FAA’s Progress And Challenges In Advancing Safety Oversight Initiatives
By Bill Goldston

April 17, 2013, 2013 - On Tuesday the Department of Transportation’s Assistant Inspector General for Aviation and Special Programs, Jeffrey B. Guzzetti testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation regarding the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) progress and challenges in implementing safety oversight initiatives.  

The Assistant Inspector General focused on FAA’s need for comprehensive data collection and analysis to enhance the safety of air traffic operations; the need to strengthen its risk-based oversight approach for repair stations and manufacturers; and the progress and challenges with implementing mandated safety requirements.

Specifically, the Assistant Inspector General noted that, to reduce the risk of safety incidents such as air traffic controller operational errors, pilot deviations, wildlife strikes, and runway incursions, FAA needs to refine its processes for collecting data and analyzing root causes.

In addition, the Assistant Inspector General described the FAA’s challenges with establishing a risk-based oversight system for repair stations and aircraft manufacturers, as well as effectively determining how many inspectors it needs and where. Finally, the Assistant Inspector General noted that despite commendable progress on implementing key elements of the Airline Safety Act, the FAA continues to be challenged with meeting provisions for improved pilot training, qualification, and screening requirements, as well as advancing safety initiatives at smaller carriers. 

Over the past several years, the FAA has rolled out numerous initiatives to enhance the safety of air traffic control operations, but significant challenges continue to hinder these efforts. A top priority for the FAA is to accurately count and identify trends that contribute to operational errors—events where controllers do not maintain safe separation between aircraft.



The FAA’s ATSAP program a voluntary, non-punitive system through which controllers can report safety incidents has the potential to enhance safety, but system improvements are needed before the Agency can realize expected benefits. Other priorities that the FAA must continue to address are controller fatigue, runway incursions, and wildlife hazards. Two significant safety-related challenges also remain: (1) FAA’s progress in developing a safety data analysis system to proactively identify risk, and (2) introducing Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) into U.S. airspace. 

FAA statistics indicate that reported operational errors when required separation is lost due to a controller error rose by 53 percent between fiscal years 2009 and 2010. While total operational errors remained at these levels in 2010 and 2011, the most serious reported errors, those in which a collision was barely avoided, continued to increase, from 37 in fiscal year 2009, to 43 in fiscal year 2010, and 55 in fiscal year 2011. Further, since the beginning of fiscal year 2012, both the total and most serious number of reported operational errors appears to have increased. 

However, the reason these increases occurred is unknown. According to the FAA, the increases are the result, in part, of its increased use of data in the Traffic Analysis and Review Program (TARP) an automated system for detecting loss of separation incidents at terminal locations. In January 2012, the FAA issued new policies and procedures for collecting, investigating, and reporting all separation losses. However, their effectiveness is limited by incomplete data and the lack of an accurate baseline on the number of separation losses. 

At the time of our ATSAP review last year, operational errors at the high altitude en route centers—which have had an automated system for detecting loss of separation incidents in place for years—have also increased from 353 in fiscal year 2009 to 489 in fiscal year 2010, suggesting that the increase in reported errors during this period was linked in part to a rise in actual errors.
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