Air Traffic Safety Questioned as Incidents Double

The Wall Street Journal reports that the number of air traffic related incidents in the United States nearly doubled year over year from September 2009 to September 2010.

The report comes just a few days after the FAA acknowledged that an American Airlines 777 nearly collided with two U.S. Air Force C-17s in the airspace south of New York City.

Today’s article offers some startling figures about air traffic in the United States and provides additional concern over the dangers of the heavily congested airspace around the country’s busiest airports. But the article also points out that the reporting process is in its infancy which could help explain why there was such a large fluctuation in totals between years.

In the 12 months ending on Sept. 30, 2010, there were 1,889 operation errors — which usually means aircraft coming too close together, according to the Federal Aviation Administration’s official tally. During the same period a year earlier, there were 947 errors. And the year before that there 1008 errors. Before 2008 the FAA used a different counting method, so a more historical pattern isn’t available.

The FAA administrator says the higher number of reported errors is due to better reporting and better technology that can determine more precisely how close planes are in the air.

Very few of the errors fall into the most serious category, which could result in pilots taking evasive action to prevent an accident. But those instances have also increased. In the year ending Sept. 30, there were 44 such events; 37 in the prior year and 28 in the year before that.

The FAA is currently in the midst of a massive air traffic control overhaul, NextGen, which will move the current system  from being radar-based to one that will utilize GPS, allowing planes to fly closer and takeoff and land more frequently thanks to increased precision.

The FAA has recently tried to increase pressure on the airlines to help fund NextGen as the  current system is becoming increasingly antiquated as increases in air traffic appear to be pushing the system to its limit, and thus, requiring more immediate attention and funding in order to get the entire overhaul up and running over the coming decade.

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