Kevin Karpé spent 31 years as an air traffic controller and air traffic manager.
Karpé says the number of recent close call collisions is really not that significant.
He says despite the nationwide air traffic controller shortage, the system is managed by very professional people.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Kevin Karpé, 62, CEO, Diverse Vector Aviation Consulting from San Diego, California about the reported increases in collision close calls among commercial airliners lately. It's been edited for length and clarity.
Recently, The New York Times published a report raising concerns about the number of collision close calls in the US, stating they were happening far more than the public was aware, at a rate of several times a week.
These figures may seem egregious, and while some of these situations could've hypothetically resulted in catastrophic outcomes, if you run the percentages of close calls against the total number of completed flights in our national airspace per day, which is roughly 45,000, it's really not that significant.
Over the years, I've personally evaluated and investigated hundreds of those incidents. I've spent 31 years with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as both an air traffic controller and air traffic manager. I'm currently the founder and CEO of an aviation consulting firm and while I understand these "near misses" are getting lots of attention right now in the headlines, I also know our country hasn't had a fatal commercial airliner accident since 2009.
I feel 110% confident each and every time I board a plane and fly within our national air space, and so should everyone else.
Here's what happens behind the scenes in a near-collision to keep everyone safe and prevent future issues.
Commercial airliners are equipped with a Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) — alarms go off all the time
The system monitors the airspace around the aircraft to avoid any potential mid-air collisions with other aircraft.
If it detects an aircraft that may present a collision threat in its vicinity, it will sound an audible alarm in the cockpit to alert the pilot of a resolution advisory. The pilot then notifies the air traffic controller that he is responding to the TCAS alarm. At no time are the flight crew or the passengers made aware of the situation.
While the idea of an alarm going off in the cockpit might sound daunting, TCAS advisories happen all the time and it doesn't often involve two commercial air carriers. They're mostly due to smaller aircraft or some other type of conflict.
When a close call like that occurs, an air traffic controller may have put the air carriers in that position. Either they didn't ensure the required separation or it could also be a pilot deviation.
Although the media often refers to these types of incidents as "close calls" or "near misses," in the industry, it's known as an operational error. In these instances, The FAA has to conduct a performance evaluation and investigate other factors to determine the cause.
Back at the control tower, an alarm system that has both aural and visual notifications is triggered
The alarm system is also triggered at the air traffic controller's workstation, prompting the controller to issue a safety alert over the radio in one of two forms — a terrain alert, if the potential conflict involves low altitude, a tower, or something popping out from the ground, or a traffic alert if the potential threat involves an aircraft conflict.
It's normal for a commercial aircraft to climb anywhere from 700 to 1000 feet to clear the conflict at hand. Once clear, the pilot will report to their traffic controller that they are returning to their assigned altitude.
Today, if an air traffic controller has an operational error, they can voluntarily report the incident using the Air Traffic Safety Action Program (ATSAP). If a report is filed, the controller does not face any punitive or disciplinary action — as long as the errors aren't the result of gross negligence or some form of illegal activity.
Prior to ATSAP, there was a whole protocol of actions that were filed when a loss of separation occurred, which required being relieved of operational duties to assess what happened and to determine if retraining or other remediation was necessary.
When it comes to operational errors, there are always lots of layers to investigate
In my day, if you had three errors within a two-year period, you would likely be reassigned to a lower-level facility. When I worked as a quality assurance staff specialist at the FAA's Western-Pacific Regional Headquarters from 2003 to 2005, one of our rotating duties was to be on call 24/7 for a week at a time.
We'd take every single call pertaining to every incident, accident, or operational error that had anything to do with something that happened within the air traffic system. Then we'd do an evaluation based on those calls and report back to the air traffic division managers and FAA headquarters in Washington, DC.
There are lots of factors that go into each incident, from the type and length of shift the person was working, to the level of training and supervision provided. We also examined whether they misunderstood a procedure or the requirements and whether the trainer had to step in and override the instructions.
Many people blame recent operational errors on fatigue caused by a nationwide shortage of air traffic controllers
While a government report released this summer found that 77% of critical air traffic control facilities were understaffed, the truth is staffing has been an issue since Ronald Reagan fired nearly 13,000 striking controllers in 1981.
Between the combination of that mass firing four decades ago, people taking early retirement after 20 to 25 years of active air traffic control, The FAA's requirement that controllers must begin training by the age of 31 along with the mandatory retirement age of 56, and the fact that people are not getting certified as quickly as we are losing them, it leaves us in a constant deficit.
Even if we hired 11,000 air traffic controllers this year, there is still an extensive training program that goes along with that, and depending on the type of facility, it can take three to four years before they can work in a major airport like JFK.
Despite all of this, I know the system is managed by very professional people
I know the system is managed both on the pilot and controller side by very professional people and they are doing a great job in the grand scheme of things.
According to a study by Harvard University, the odds of being in an accident while flying in the US are one in 1.2 million, and the chances of that accident being fatal is only one in 11 million. Meanwhile, your chances of dying in a car crash are one in 5,000.
So while it may sound crazy, flying commercially in the US these days is still safer than driving your car to the grocery store.
Read the original article on Business Insider