Three Major Papers Report Scary Air Traffic Problems

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Air traffic controllers in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, area have routinely covered up errors and their supervisors have failed to investigate cases that included airplanes flying too close to each other, U.S. government officials said.

The incidents date back seven years at D-FW Terminal Radar Approach Control, which oversees air traffic at all of the area’s airports, including Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

The investigation by the Office of Special Counsel, an independent government agency, was prompted by whistle-blower Anne Whiteman, an air traffic controller at the radar approach control.

“It was to the point that I was fearful that two airplanes would collide,” Whiteman told the Dallas Morning News newspaper for a story in Friday’s papers.

“I can say that without hesitation.”

Also Friday, the Los Angeles Times newspaper reported airplanes came alarmingly close to each other four times in the last month at Los Angeles International Airport, reviving concerns about safety at the airport, which has an outdated and confusing runway.

And the Boston Globe newspaper reported the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board is investigating a near-collision earlier this month of two passenger jets that were mistakenly cleared to take off at the same time on intersecting runways at Logan International Airport.

In Dallas-Fort Worth, Special Counsel Scott Bloch said there was documentation of Whiteman’s allegations that supervisors failed to investigate some cases. In other cases, the radar approach control investigated errors but did not notify the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration as required, he said.

The investigation also showed the radar approach control underreported errors.

For example, the control centre reported two operational errors in the first half of 2004 but the Office of Inspector General for the Transportation Department found in the last half of 2004, there were 36 errors, including 28 of moderate severity, the report found.

In one of those cases, two airplanes came dangerously close to each other as they neared a runway, the report said. Each was 90 metrest apart vertically and about a one kilometre apart horizontally – but federal minimums require vertical distances of 300 metres and horizontal distances of five kilometres when they are within 65 kilometres of Dallas-Fort Worth.

A Dallas-Fort Worth airport spokesman referred all questions to the FAA.

“We take these charges very seriously,” FAA spokesman Greg Martin said.

“As we became aware of them, we took immediate and thorough action.”

D-FW Terminal Radar Approach Control was put on probation for two years, while inspectors conducted checks unannounced. Some employees were reassigned, decertified or placed on probation. It is unclear how many were disciplined.

“Their performance has vastly improved and they’re now in compliance with strict FAA procedures,” Martin said.

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