US Govt officials detail key aviation safety challenges

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Flight International Online news 12:00GMT: Runway incursions, operational errors and staffing levels for air traffic controllers and safety inspectors constitute the key safety challenges currently facing the US FAA, Government officials told the Senate aviation subcommittee yesterday.

Speaking at a hearing on aviation safety in Washington DC, FAA administrator Marion Blakey said Category A and B runway incursions - the most serious classifications - have reduced by more than 40% since fiscal 2001, with a total of 324 incidents reported in fiscal 2005, of which 29 were Category A or B.

However, three of those incursions involved two commercial aircraft, "an event that had not occurred in the previous three years", says Blakey.

Operational errors in fiscal 2005 rose to 1,489 from the 1,149 reported the previous year, with Category A and B errors increasing to 680 from 638.

This is "the highest number in the past six years", says US DOT inspector general Kenneth Mead, although he urges caution in drawing year-over-year comparisons because "prior years were subject to gross underreporting". He adds that the FAA is "taking corrective action in the form of random audits, which are having a real effect".

The FAA administrator says the regulator is "evaluating a software prototype to ensure that operational errors are identified" and that "better data will improve the way we manage safety".

"Overall, we are taking a proactive approach to address operational vulnerabilities through awareness, education, procedures, airport infrastructure, and surface technology initiatives," she adds.

One such initiative, the Sensis Airport Surface Detection System (ASDE-X), which was certified by the FAA in October 2003, has been installed at four US airports and will be deployed to a further 31 airports over time, says Blakey, although she does not give a a specific timeline.

However, National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) president John Carr says deployment of this system is behind schedule and that the current system - the airport movement area safety system (AMASS) - "has several shortcomings".

"The ASDE-X program was originally scheduled to include 25 airports with a completion date of 2007, but due to policy shifts and budget cuts in FY2004 and FY2005, as well as an increase in the number of airports (30 plus) slated to receive ASDE-X, only 15 facilities will have received ASDE-X by 2007," he notes.

"The [FAA] is now estimating that the project will be completed by FY2011."
Carr points to the limitations of AMASS, noting that during severe weather conditions "this critical safety layer is missing from our airports".

Two further issues on the FAA's agenda are safety inspector and air traffic controller staffing levels, says Blakey. The regulator's safety inspector workforce was reduced by 150 employees to 3,456 in fiscal 2005.

"There are plans to hire an additional 80 inspectors this year, although we may be able to do better than that," she notes, adding that the cuts were "unintended, but when the money isn't there, there really aren't choices".

Mead adds that inspectors are "spread thin" and the Air Transportation Oversight System (ATOS), the procedure put in place in 1998 for inspectors to follow during maintenance checks, is "not yet at an end state and there is a ways to go before it is at anything resembling an end state".

For instance, inspectors in fiscal 2005 failed to complete 26% of planned inspections, says Mead, half of which related to "high risk areas".

"Let's not lose sight of the need to adequately staff our inspector workforce," he urges.
NATCA's Carr strongly criticizes the FAA's air traffic controller staffing levels, pointing out that there are currently 1,000 fewer controllers than there were two years ago.

"The FAA is facing a staffing shortage that is forcing fewer and fewer controllers to guide more and more planes - both in the air and on the ground - creating a greatly reduced margin for error," he says.

"The agency has stated that it plans on hiring 12,500 controllers, but that will take a decade, meaning that even in the best case scenario, the system will be left woefully understaffed for the foreseeable future."

FAA's current 14,540-strong air traffic controller workforce will be increased by 1,249 new hires in fiscal 2006, says Blakey.

"The FAA needs to come up with a number it's prepared to stand behind," adds Mead.
Contract negotiations between the FAA and NATCA are "going far too slowly", says Blakey, adding that "the parties are significantly apart on several issues".

The FAA in September sent a letter to NATCA calling for the end of labor discussions by the Christmas holiday, which it hoped would be achieved by holding talks five days a week, every week, at single location. However, this call was rejected by the union, which called the proposal "an arbitrary and artificial ending date for negotiations".

KERRY EZARD / WASHINGTON DC