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Old July 6th, 2009, 07:46 PM   #1
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MISC | Air Traffic Controllers Burned Out

Audit: Chicago air traffic controllers get little rest between shifts, increased overtimep
2 July 2009

CHICAGO (AP) - Air traffic controllers who direct planes in and out of Chicago's O'Hare International Airport have too little time off between shifts, a factor that contributes to fatigue and could be a safety threat, according to a federal audit released Thursday.

The 21-page report by the U.S. Department of Transportation criticized the Federal Aviation Administration for not acting sooner to alleviate air controller fatigue at three of the country's busiest air traffic facilities and recommended immediate changes.

The audit showed most controllers at the three facilities located in the Chicago area have had fewer than 10 hours rest between some shifts, progressively earlier start times on consecutive shifts and increased overtime hours.

"This type of work schedule offers minimal opportunity for sleep when the time required for commuting, eating and other necessary daily activities is taken into account," the report said.

The report said the FAA has not acted on earlier National Transportation Safety Board recommendations on controller fatigue and that the agency "does not consistently address human factors issues, such as fatigue and situational awareness" when it investigates operational errors.

O'Hare has had a series of near misses in recent years that were blamed on air traffic controller error. In June, the FAA said two American Airlines planes came close to each other while landing at O'Hare, though both planes landed safely and no injuries were reported.

The transportation department's report laid out recommendations, including increasing rest periods, rotating controllers through less demanding positions during each shift and providing fatigue awareness training.

FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory said the agency disputes some of the audit, but has already made changes in the past year. For example, the FAA added training on fatigue awareness in May 2008. In light of the audit, the FAA said it would re-evaluate staffing and look at increasing rest periods between shifts.

"Certainly, fatigue is a concern of ours. This is something that we're watching very, very closely," Cory said Thursday. "We have made changes already and we continue to make changes."

The audit, which was sent to FAA earlier this week, was conducted between January 2008 and February at a tower at O'Hare and facilities in the Chicago suburbs of Elgin and Aurora. A spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said he requested the audit after hearing controllers' concerns.

Air traffic controllers said they felt "vindicated" by the audit's findings.

"We have expressed our concerns about controller fatigue for several years, only to have them fall on deaf ears at the FAA, which has ignored NTSB requests to meet with us and work on fatigue issues in a spirit of collaboration," said Patrick Forrey, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, a union which represents about 15,000 air traffic controllers.
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Old February 6th, 2010, 07:18 AM   #2
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Spain goes after its highly paid air traffic controllers during a recession
5 February 2010

MADRID (AP) - Spain's government says it is using emergency legislation to rein in its air traffic controllers, who earn up to euro900,000 ($1.2 million) a year in a country suffering a recession and nearly 20 percent unemployment.

The controllers are technically civil servants, but they signed an agreement in 1999 giving them autonomy and control over their salaries.

Development Minister Jose Blanco said the new law will return the sector to Spain's public airport authority, AENA.

Blanco said the high annual salaries -- an average of euro375,000 ($513,400) a year -- defeat the government's goal of cutting costs.

He said the emergency legislation became active Friday with the king's signature, and he predicted parliament would support the measure.
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Old October 22nd, 2010, 07:11 PM   #3
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THE SKY'S THE LIMIT
21 October 2010
Bangkok Post

Inevitably, stress is always associated with any kind of job. But have you ever wondered what the most stressful occupation in the world is?

It's not being a cardiac surgeon, or a salesperson who has to hit unreasonable sales targets every month, or a customer service employee who deals with people who are demanding, rude and lousy.

Guess what? It's an air traffic controller.

"It's such a tense moment when we try to keep several aircraft apart from each other in order to prevent a crash in the sky or move all of them on the ground effectively and safely," said Phanom Tanheng, 39, a senior air traffic controller with Aeronautical Radio of Thailand (ART).

What does an air traffic controller actually do?

According to Phanom, the primary mission of an air traffic controller is to watch over aircraft in the airspace they are responsible for and then use their visual observations and radar to determine where each plane should take off and land.

Another important role is to communicate with pilots in order to direct and guide the aircraft.

To maintain a safe and orderly flow of air traffic, the controller must also keep pilots informed about the weather.

"It gets a bit nerve-racking when there is no space for pilots to land," said Kanungnit Chin-ugsorn, 41, an ART manager.

"Our job is to talk and explain the situation to pilots and direct them until a spot is available. It's not easy to meet each particular need.

"In my early days of work, I was quite scared. My heart was pounding with excitement and my hands were sweating when I was under pressure."

However, with experience and a well-planned approach, air traffic controllers can predict what will lie ahead so they're able to better handle situations.

Air traffic controllers don't work only with pilots. Instead, they typically team up with other controllers, engineers, managers and other airport staff.

"The amount of controllers needed can be different. It depends on the location and size of the airport. I, myself, now serve with the Area Control Centre, Tung Mahamek, with a team of over 200," Kanungnit said.

Phanom said that air traffic controllers are under constant pressure while on the job because they have to carry weighty responsibilities.

Their tasks also depend upon many variables including weather conditions, traffic volume and passengers. Also, they need to avoid frustration when working with radar and other communication equipment.

"It's much tougher to work with uncontrollable factors such as bad weather. We must keep our eyes on the jobs," said Kanungnit.

"Safety is our top priority," Phanom added, "On top of that, everything we do has to follow the aviation rules and regulations."

Highly specialised skills are a must

To perform such a demanding and challenging task, an air traffic controller needs to possess highly specialised skills, Phanom told mylife.

For one thing, they must be well organised and decisive. Excellent visual memory and a short-term memory are also second to none.

"We must focus on what pilots say exactly, what the flight number is, the altitude level and on which runway he wants to land. A mistake could result in hundreds of deaths," Phanom said.

"Importantly, we have to watch out for a possible mayday signal."

A mayday call is a distress signal in radio communication. It's specifically used when pilots are in a life-threatening emergency.

"The call is always given three times in a row - mayday, mayday, mayday," Phanom explained.

Communication skills and team spirit can also enhance the performance.

"Candidates must have good hearing skills and be able to speak English clearly enough to be understood over radios, intercoms and similar communication equipment," he said

To be able to effectively cope with stressful circumstances, air traffic controllers have to maintain both physical and psychological wellbeing. People with medical conditions such as heart disease or mental illness generally don't qualify.

"We are required to undergo rigorous medical and mental tests every year in order to ensure that we are still qualified to handle such worrying situations associated with the job," he explained.

How to become an air traffic controller

Becoming an air traffic controller entails quite a lengthy process. According to Phanom, to apply for the position, individuals need to hold a bachelor's degree in any field. Prior experience in air traffic control is not necessary.

He said that in Thailand, becoming an air traffic controller can be done in two different ways. One is by joining Aeronautical Radio of Thailand as a trainee controller. Once employed by the company, the trainee will be sent to the Civil Aviation Training Center of Thailand - the only air traffic academy in Thailand - to undergo theoretical and practical training.

This provides the trainee with the fundamental air control to standards required to hold an air traffic control licence. It takes about 10 months to complete different phases of training.

"The majority of training is done on the job with a highly-qualified instructor," Phanom said.

The training is rigid, Phanom said. A trainee will be assessed at each step of the process to ensure that he is an all-around controller.

The one who shows high potential for the position will be observed and inspected by the committee of the Civil Aviation Training Center of Thailand. Only after the trainee has passed an examination for all training stages will they obtain a licence.

"The length of training varies. It can be several years depending on the complexity of the sector," added Kanungnit, "Whenever an air traffic controller is promoted to a new unit or to start a new sector in a particular unit, he needs to undergo specific training."

Another route to becoming an air traffic controller is to join through the military. Military air traffic controllers are only responsible for military airspace and airbases, while civilian controllers maintain airspace for civilian traffic and civilian airports.

"I did my military service for the Royal Thai Navy," Phanom said. "I was granted a scholarship to pursue air traffic control. After that, I held an air traffic controller position in the military at U-tapao Pattaya International Airport."

Flexible working

Air traffic controllers are required to work rotating shifts including nights, weekends and public holidays. Phanom said that they are generally on shift for two hours then get a one hour break. They work eight hours a day two days on with two days off.

"This work pattern can help ensure that we are able to remain focused and effective," he said.

Stressful yet worthwhile

With such serious responsibilities, associated stress and the requirements for highly specialised skills, air traffic controllers are paid quite well.

Phanom said a junior controller trainee usually starts in their 20s with the monthly income of about 15,000 baht. And the rate can go up to 100,000 baht a month if they are promoted to a senior position.

"Very good employee benefits and flexible hours are also major advantages," said Kanungnit.

An air traffic controller's career is quite long, Phanom said. They can start working in their 20s and retire in their 50s.

"The mandatory retirement age is 60. But we can keep on working as long as we are healthy," he said.

Phanom said the job gives him a great sense of achievement and pride.

"I always feel a glow of pride when I'm able to manage difficult situations effectively. Every day is a new adventure. Two days are never the same," he said.

Women are allowed

Many people may believe men are best suited to be air traffic controllers. But Kanungnit disagrees. She said there are many female air traffic controllers these days and they are able to perform as effectively as males.

"Personally, I think we may be more careful and pay more attention to details so we sometimes deal better with situations. Our company values seniority. Managing male subordinates is not a problem for me," she said.
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Old December 21st, 2010, 05:36 AM   #4
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Government Should Pay to Modernize Air-Traffic System
16 December 2010
The Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON—A federal task force called on the government Wednesday to bear much of the cost for modernizing the nation's delay-prone air-traffic control system.

The debate over who should pay for the so-called NextGen project, a multiyear $15 billion endeavor to move to a satellite-based system, has been a key obstacle standing in the way of legislation to kick-start the project. The airline industry wants the government to pay for equipping planes with upgraded navigation systems, while Congressional lawmakers have called for airlines and other private entities to bear the costs.

On Wednesday, the Future of Aviation Advisory Committee, a panel of government, industry and union leaders convened by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, voted to recommend that the federal government undertake a "significant financial investment" to accelerate NextGen. The panel, concluding months of meetings, declined to say how much the government should pay, but said aid could come in the form of grants, loans, loan guarantees and other tools to help airlines cover the costs.

One task-force member, Severin Borenstein, a business administration and public-policy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, pointed out that Congress would be hard-pressed to approve industry aid given a renewed focus on government deficits and the need to cut overall spending.

But other committee members said the government investment would lead to substantial public benefits, including more-efficient air travel, reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions and job creation.
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Old December 24th, 2010, 08:58 AM   #5
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Nav Canada as beacon
Canada's air navigation system is model for efficient privatization
24 December 2010
National Post

When Jon Webster started flying to India for Air Canada 10 years ago, a typical connection between Toronto and New Delhi would cross the southern tip of Greenland, fly over Iceland, the British Isles, the Netherlands, through the Eastern European block and "the Stans" before reaching its final destination.

Not exactly the easiest route.

Since then, Canada has struck an agreement with Russia to allow flights across the Arctic and into each other's airspace. The result has been a 30% increase in Polar flights in the past four years to destinations in India, China and other Asian Pacific destinations.

"What it did was reduce flight times," says Mr. Webster, the Air Canada captain. "The last thing people want to do is spend more time in an airplane than they need to."

But simply being able to plot a course to fly over the Arctic on the way to Asia was not enough. Canada needed a dramatic reinvestment in its navigation infrastructure and technology to more efficiently link this country to the new hub of world economic growth.

Enter Nav Canada. A once troubled government asset, the country's civil air traffic controller was privatized 14 years ago and is now a shining example of how to create a global technology leader out of a hulking government bureaucracy. Nav Canada's efforts have flights moving more efficiently than ever through the skies above the country.

Many of the changes implemented by Nav Canada in recent years have gone unnoticed by the flying public. Certain flights are now shorter than they once were; aircraft no longer circle airports awaiting a runway; descents start further out and planes reach cruising altitudes more quickly; and flights to Asia now spend less time by jaunting over the Arctic than endlessly cruising the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans.

But while many of these changes have escaped the notice of passengers, the results are very tangible.

Nav Canada estimates its efforts to modernize the aircraft navigation system in the country since it was privatized in 1996 have cut the fuel bill of airlines flying into Canada and above it by an estimated $1.4-billion collectively, and helped cut 5.4 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.

As its efforts ramp up in the coming years, Nav Canada estimates it will be able to save airlines a further $2.9-billion on fuel by 2016, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an additional eight million tonnes, or roughly the equivalent average annual emissions of a country like Georgia.

Meantime, Nav Canada has won the respect of airlines for keeping its fees steady, and in some cases, like in 2006, even reducing them when it can.

Because of its successes, it has also been able to sell its proprietary technology to countries such as the U.K., Denmark and Australia as they look to modernize their own systems.

John Crichton, Nav Canada chief executive, makes no bones about why he thinks his organization has been able to make these improvements and emerge as a global leader.

"I don't think there's any question that the privatization was the best thing that ever happened," he said. "That really unleashed all the innovation."

Prior to the privatization, any improvements to the air navigation system were subject to the shortfalls of the federal government's budgeting, Mr. Crichton said. "One year you'd have some money and the next year you wouldn't have anything. It wasn't conducive to building a sustainable system."

Post-privatization, however, Nav Canada has been able to focus on expanding its reach, and, in turn, operating the airspace above Canada more efficiently.

Only a 9-million-squarekilometre patch of airspace north of the U.S. border was covered by radar when Nav Canada took over the service in 1996. That didn't mean that aircraft were not allowed to fly anywhere else, it just meant that when they did they were subject to certain rules that made their flying less efficient.

For example, an aircraft flying through an airspace without radar, or some other form of modern surveillance, must fly 80 nautical miles away from any other aircraft for safety reasons. A plane flying through coverage, however, can narrow that gap to just five nautical miles, allowing more aircraft in the vicinity and greater efficiency.

Since it took over the country's navigation system, Nav Canada has embarked on an initiative that aims to cover the entire Canadian airspace with some sort of surveillance, either through striking deals with the Department of National Defence to utilize their Northern Warning Radar systems, or by building so-called Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast [ADS-B] towers in strategic points, like around Hudson Bay to improve coverage.

ADS-B towers are about a tenth of the cost of radar to install, or roughly $700,000 a station, but carry similar benefits to radar, allowing air traffic controllers to communicate better with aircraft.

"What we've been doing is, in the areas where there is no surveillance, primarily in the North, we've been adding it in, but using the new technology," Mr. Crichton said.

By the end of 2011, almost all of Canada will be covered either by radar or the ADS-B technology, he said. Those efforts include a partnership with Greenland that goes live early next year that will expand coverage for transatlantic flights between the southern tip of Greenland and the northern part of Labrador.

Greater coverage will allow Nav Canada to better orchestrate the thousands of aircraft it guides each day, optimizing their flight paths and altitudes along the way as well.

"If you can shave two or three minutes off an approach, and you consider that we handle 5,000 or 6,000 movements a day in terms of jet traffic, two or three minutes starts to add up day after day after day," Mr. Crichton said.

Air Canada's pilots are certainly noticing the changes, Mr. Webster said.

He said the country's largest carrier recently had one of its routes straightened between Cleveland, Ohio, and Toronto. It reduced the travel time by 15 minutes, allowing it to increase the number of connections between the cities by 75 a week.

"If you can reduce your flying time, you can also increase your connection times, which means you're now in a position to make those routes more viable," he said.

Aircraft also burn less fuel at higher altitudes, and the modernized system also allows Nav Canada to help aircraft reach their ultimate cruising altitude more quickly and essentially idle their engines on their approach at the right times to allow them to cruise into their final destinations using less fuel.

The country's air navigation system received $100-million to $200-million a year in annual subsidies from Ottawa before it was sold to Nav Canada, a private, not-for-profit corporation, in 1996 for $1.5-billion. Part of the rationale for the privatization were lengthy delays at airports across the country, including Toronto's Pearson International, as a result of inefficiencies in the system.

"We're allowed to charge whatever our costs are.... It's sort of like a co-operative," Mr. Crichton said. "We make money, make no mistake about it. But when we make money, we either reduce our charges or use it for investing in our network or paying down debt."

The fact Nav Canada has not only managed to save airlines money on fuel but also cut its fees has garnered it the respect of the industry along the way.

Calin Rovinescu, Air Canada's chief executive, commended Nav Canada for its efforts to modernize the country's navigation systems during a speech in Montreal earlier this year, while condemning the United States and the European Union, which still operates as a patchwork of nationalized systems, for their lack of leadership on the issue.

Nav Canada also won the International Air Transport Association's Eagle Award earlier this year for its efforts, in particular its constant consultation with the industry.

"Nav Canada is probably one of the most progressive [air navigation service providers] in the world," said Steve Lott, an IATA spokesman. "We have seen some bad examples, especially on the airport side, where privatization results in a company coming in that is only focused on the bottom line and not interested in talking to their airline customers, or dealing with passengers, and are only interested in double-digit profit margins.

"With an airport or an air traffic authority, they're essentially monopoly providers, so that can go both ways."
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Old January 28th, 2011, 11:15 AM   #6
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Fire in Newfoundland Diverts Atlantic Flights
28 January 2011
The New York Times

A fire at an air traffic control center in Newfoundland forced air traffic controllers in New York and Portugal to handle dozens of additional airliners over the Atlantic on Thursday morning. Many planes had to be detoured hundreds of miles, to their destinations in the United States, the Caribbean or South America, according to air traffic officials.

An electrical fire around 10:30 a.m. Eastern time on Thursday forced the evacuation of controllers in Gander, Newfoundland. About two dozen planes were diverted south, to an area controlled by the New York Air Route Traffic Control Center, in Ronkonkoma, on Long Island. Planes already in the affected area were allowed to continue, because they were on preassigned routes that are protected from other traffic.

For the period of the disruption, which was about two hours, most of the traffic is westbound. Although a few planes were held on the ground in the United States, ''from our perspective, it didn't result in a lot of delays or disruption,'' said Laura J. Brown, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration.

At the Ronkonkoma center, Patrick McDonough, the representative of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union, said controllers were able to pick up the extra workload partly because many planes were grounded because of the snow storm in the Northeast. He said the New York controllers coordinated with two other air traffic control centers that handle Atlantic traffic, Santa Maria in Portugal, and Shanwick, a merged operation of functions formerly carried out in Shannon, Ireland, and Prestwick, Scotland.

For most of the affected planes, the problem added 20 or 30 minutes to their flight times, but no planes declared fuel emergencies, Mr. McDonough said.
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Old April 19th, 2011, 12:05 PM   #7
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WSJ: FAA's Head Of Air-Traffic Control Resigns
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
14 April 2011

The FAA's top air-traffic control official resigned Thursday in the wake of more than two weeks of unrelenting public criticism and controversy over incidents of government controllers falling asleep while on duty.

The sudden departure of Hank Krakowski, a former senior United Airlines safety official who until recently seemed to be in good standing with lawmakers and FAA chief Randy Babbitt, comes after a series of high-profile lapses by bleary-eyed controllers failing to contact or monitor planes as required.

Capping several earlier agency moves to correct the problem, the latest move highlights broader budget and organizational issues facing the FAA as it struggles to run the nation's sprawling air-traffic system with limit budgets.

The resignation also raises questions about the direction of the FAA's proposed next-generation traffic control system, based on satellite technology rather than ground-based radars.

The FAA said Krakowski met with FAA Administrator Babbitt Thursday morning and submitted his resignation. He will be replaced on an interim basis by the FAA's top lawyer, David Grizzle.
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Old March 6th, 2013, 06:08 AM   #8
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Air-Traffic Error Probes Cut as U.S. Close Calls Rise
Mar 5, 2013 3:51 AM GMT+0800
Bloomberg

U.S. aviation regulators don’t have enough investigators to examine close calls in the skies, which have increased more than 50 percent since 2009, according to a report by the Transportation Department’s Inspector General.

The Federal Aviation Administration has reduced the number of employees reviewing these safety cases even as air-traffic errors that bring planes too close together have jumped, and as new technology is expected to uncover more such incidents, the report found.

“With the implementation of FAA’s new procedures, the number of personnel investigating losses of separation has been substantially reduced,” the agency said in the report.

The report is the latest to examine the surge in errors that let planes get too close, also known as a “loss of separation.” Those errors rose 53 percent in fiscal 2010 compared with 2009, to 1,887 from 1,234. There were 1,895 controller errors in 2011.

The FAA has maintained that most of the rise is due to improved reporting and not an actual increase in the risks of mid-air or runway collisions. The agency in recent years has started allowing controllers to self-report errors without fear of punishment, a program airlines have used for decades to identify safety issues.

The report by Assistant Inspector General Jeffrey Guzzetti found that at least some of the increase is due to an actual rise in the number of incidents.

‘Significant Challenges’

The report was released as the FAA prepares to close as many as 238 airport towers and require its 15,000 controllers to take furlough days because of automatic cuts triggered March 1 when lawmakers failed to reach a budget deal. The cuts could force airports in Chicago and Atlanta to close runways and will cause flight delays, according to the agency.

In January 2012, the FAA consolidated error investigations into three offices across the country with 16 people to do the reviews, according to the report. Previously, at least one person in each of the 300 air-traffic control facilities in the U.S. was assigned to review error reports.

The FAA faces “significant challenges” as a result of that decision, according to the report. Investigators in centralized locations may not understand each air-traffic facility’s local practices, making reviews more difficult, it said.

Automatic Tracking

The FAA is also expecting an additional jump in error reports as a new automated system goes online across the country. The system automatically tracks errors in radar rooms covering flights near airports, where such incidents were previously reported manually.

The agency plans to hire additional investigators, according to the report.

The new error-monitoring system will improve the agency’s ability to spot safety trends and respond, it said in an e-mail statement on the report.

“Validation and analysis have greatly enhanced the agency’s ability to identify and prioritize risk, then mitigate it through the most effective means available,” the FAA said in the statement.

The statement didn’t address whether the error investigators will be subject to furloughs imposed on FAA employees. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta has said the furloughs won’t compromise safety.

Safety Measure

The FAA’s system of tracking errors and encouraging employees to report issues has improved safety, Doug Church, spokesman for the Washington-based National Air Traffic Controllers Association union, said in an e-mail. FAA cuts could undermine that, Church said.

“These budget cuts may stymie the efforts of air-traffic controllers and the FAA to move safety reporting systems forward with updated technologies and procedures,” Church said.

Allowing two planes to get too close together is a key safety measure of the air-traffic system and draws attention when incidents come to light.

On July 31, a miscommunication caused a controller at Washington’s Reagan National Airport to clear two regional jets to take off toward an arriving flight.

The Inspector General’s report also found evidence that more errors are occurring than the FAA has reported.

Many incidents that controllers voluntarily disclose aren’t included in the agency’s totals because of confidentiality rules, the report found.

Unreported Errors

The Inspector General also discovered that 157 incidents in Charlotte, North Carolina, weren’t included in FAA totals.

In August 2011, 157 planes took off and landed on a runway at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport while a disabled commercial aircraft intruded into the runway’s safety zone, according to the report.

Senior FAA officials decided not to count the incidents because they concluded that safety wasn’t compromised, according to the report.

The errors that were counted in 2011 represented an increase of less than 1 percent. If the 157 incidents in Charlotte had been included, the increase would have been 9 percent.

“Until FAA takes action to determine the true magnitude of operational errors, assess their potential safety impacts, identify their root causes, and align adequate staffing for oversight, the risk of separation losses will remain a safety concern,” the report said.
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Old September 8th, 2013, 04:52 PM   #9
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U.S. air traffic control overhaul at risk - aerospace trade group CEO

WASHINGTON, Sept 5 (Reuters) - An overhaul of the U.S. air traffic control system that would help airlines navigate crowded air routes is likely to be further delayed by U.S. budget cuts, the head of the nation's chief defense and aerospace industry lobbying group said on Thursday.

NextGen, a staged program that will shift air-traffic control systems to global positioning satellites from radar, requires about $1 billion a year in federal investment and is expected to be completed in 2025, Marion Blakey, chief executive of the Aerospace Industries Association, said at the Reuters Aerospace and Defense Summit.

It is the biggest aviation infrastructure upgrade since radar in the 1940s, she added.

However, budget cuts required by sequestration - a procedure in U.S. law that limits the size of the federal budget - may prompt the Federal Aviation Administration to raid money set aside for infrastructure projects and use it to pay for ongoing expenses, Blakey said.

"The chances are excellent that the investment accounts will be hit much the hardest," she said, speaking at the Reuters office in Washington, D.C. Blakey is also a former FAA administrator.

"The investment that's required can be derailed in the course of a single year - 2014 - by the sequestration cuts."

When the government is faced with curtailing current operations, which is felt immediately, "usually what has to go is the R&D, the investments," she said. "That's what we very much fear because it's eating this country's economic seed corn in a terrible way."

Delay of the NextGen system could affect the capacity of the U.S. air system, which is projected to handle 1 billion passengers in 2015, up from 780,000 in 2010. The impact could be felt especially at congested hubs where airlines already are "bumping up against" system capacity. That means a tiny hiccup in the system can cause many canceled flights at a hub.

Earlier on Thursday, United Continental Holdings Inc's chief financial officer said the airline is using new slim seats and other measures to both upgrade planes and allow them to carry more passengers efficiently. John Rainey said he was concerned about sequestration's effect on air traffic control and towers.

"The more important thing for us is really the air traffic control situation," he told Reuters. "I'm glad it was rectified quickly" when the FAA got authority to shift money and end the furloughs, he said. "I hope that we would have a thoughtful approach to sequestration, not have any type of capricious cuts like that which would certainly hurt a particular segment of the economy more than others."

Aerospace and airline executives expect U.S. air travel to increase about 5.5 percent a year. But some have raised concerns that growth could falter if the FAA is not able to keep control towers open or has to furlough air-traffic controllers once again, as it did earlier this year, because of budget cuts.

Blakey said she will leave soon for a conference in China to discuss airport infrastructure development there. The system is undergoing rapid growth and had large delays this summer.
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