Unfriendly Skies and the Avoidable MidAir Collision

Apparently, the skies above our nation have become less friendly recently.

The Washington Post recently reported on a dangerous trend in aviation:

The NTSB is investigating almost a dozen midair near-collisions that have occurred nationally since it began to mandate that they be reported in March. They include an incident 24,000 feet over Maryland on March 25, when a Continental Airlines 737 came within about a mile of colliding with a Gulfstream jet. The traffic was under the direction of a controller who had been on the job for almost three years after graduating from a college program. She was still in training.

Not only are there frequent and harrowing near-misses between aircraft all over the country, there also seems to be an increase in the number and frequency of such potentially deadly conflicts.

Some critics point fingers at the FAA, saying that there is a higher than historically normal number of inexperienced air traffic controllers replacing older, retirement-age controllers. But that’s only part of the story behind the worrisome statistics.

As one retired Air Traffic Controller told me:

“I agree with the basic premise that the skies are NOT getting more safe. I worked over the years in the DFW area, ABQ, SoCal and BWI. Positive radar control is more work for the controller and a few more miles for the pilot but is infinitely more safe than utilizing visual separation (italics mine).

The problem is that the FAA is tasked not only with the safe operation of our skies and airports, but also with the expeditious movement of aircraft. Oftimes these two goals are at odds with each other.

Controllers are under constant pressure to move the tin quickly — crews and aircraft costs, schedules, weather, physical space on the tarmac — all these and other issues require the controller to get planes on their way as quickly as possible. It’s like the old card game of War — deal those planes off to someone else as fast as you can!”

This firsthand look behind the Air Traffic Control curtain is unsettling at best, but the crux of the problem–or likely the optimum solution–is in this key statement:

. . . the FAA is tasked . . .  with the expeditious movement of aircraft . . . controllers are under constant pressure to move the tin quickly . .

Add to that the pressure commercial airlines put on both Air Traffic Control and airline pilots to minimize flight time and thus costs, plus throw in the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the private pilots’ lobby group, and their constant and unthinking opposition any flight restrictions and the result is an ever more crowded airspace with resistance to control techniques that increase costs and restrict aircraft movement–but provide the highest safety margin.

From a public interest standpoint, the issue of  “expeditious movement of air traffic,” recreational flyers’ access to airspace, and airlines’ operating costs are secondary to one overriding priority: flight safety.

Key to flight safety in a crowded sky is aircraft separation–which is clearly safest when verified by radar identification.

And therein lies the rub.

In order to move more traffic faster, the concept of “visual separation of aircraft” is used by controllers under certain circumstances. That is, if an aircraft reports visual contact with another aircraft, that pilot can accept the responsibility to maintain separation from the conflicting aircraft.

This frees up the controller: no longer are the aircraft and their separation the controllers’ responsibility–no longer are they separated and kept apart by radar monitoring and the controller can move on to other tasks. From the viewpoint of the FAA management, this is “moving the tin” expeditiously and at a higher volume. But for controllers?Essentially, they’re doing the same thing I’m doing: carefully guiding an airplane through crowded terminal airspace. Whether that means 50 aircraft landing and taking off per hour or 60 per hour makes little difference to both of us–the key is that it’s done safely. The pressure on controllers to issue–and pilots to accept–visual clearances serves only to increase the rate of traffic flow, but introduces a measure of risk to achieve that goal.

What’s the problem? You tell me:

This is an actual on-board display of air traffic. There are multiple aircraft converging with yours–some from above descending, some from below climbing, and many approaching from different angles. Plus, the Air Traffic Controller is looking at a regional, compass-oriented one-dimensional picture; you’re looking at three dimensions with you at the center, looking forward in your direction of flight–and you’re moving, usually in more than one axis.

Think there may be some ambiguity in traffic location for you, the controller, and the other aircraft? If you are warned about an aircraft at “one o’clock,” can you be sure which one is the conflict?

I can’t. Not with any certainty, and knowing that simply not accepting clearance and thus the responsibility will mean ATC will continue to ensure radar separation is the safest bet–for me, and for my 140 passengers. Visual flight clearance in a crowded airport terminal area is a bad, unsafe idea.

Radar separation essential. Takes a bit longer. Doesn’t provide expeditious flow. Restricts the recreational pilots’ freedom.

Ensures your safety. Fair trade?

Notice too that I said “I can’t be sure.” The “I” here is a professional pilot with 32 years of experience, former Air Force pilot, 25-year airline pilot and 19-year captain and over 17,000 flight hours. If I can’t be sure, what are the chances he can be:

With the minimum of age, experience, currency and proficiency, he can take responsibility for the lives of hundreds of passengers by saying, “Yes, I have the traffic and will maintain separation.” If he’s actually looking in the right spot for the right traffic traveling at over 200 miles per hour above or below or even behind him.

What’s safest for him, and me, and you is this: positive radar separation. Not “visual” or “pilot separation;” rather, a qualified radar controller monitoring traffic and issuing instructions to both aircraft to ensure positive separation.

The answer is all about dollars, as usual: the FAA budget strains to provide controllers, airlines constantly seek to lower operating costs, recreational flyers watch their costs go up and demand freedom and access to all airspace.

It’ll cost more all around–in ticket prices, the FAA budget, and recreational flying costs.

Realize what’s at stake here and stop the widespread use of visual clearances in crowded airport traffic areas. Our Air Traffic Controllers are the best in the world–give them the staffing levels and training and pay required to do their job. Ignore the howling voices demanding less restrictions; budget for it, pay for it and ensure the safety of our ever-more crowded airspace.

I think we’re all worth it.

38 Responses to “Unfriendly Skies and the Avoidable MidAir Collision”

  1. Tom Seagraves Says:

    I’m wondering if this post is going to cause as much controversy as your last one on this subject. If I remember correctly you pissed off a few recreational pilots. Since you’re the guy sitting up front in control of my life for whatever time I’m crammed somewhere in the back, I’m going to rely on your expertise and experience to keep me safe. And if that means it pisses off a few of the weekend pleasure pilots then so be it.

    Keep up the good work Captain.

    • I guess part of the problem is that some pilots resist the restriction, but I said *everyone*–pilots (commercial, private, military) and controllers should use VFR clearances less in crowded airspace. Omaha with two aircraft in the pattern? No big deal.

  2. I love to travel and it is great to read about the pov’s from the inside.

    Next time there is a slight delay I’ll be less annoyed because I’ll know that delay will be keeping us all safer…

  3. Woah – scary. But reassuring somehow at the same time. Thanks for the peek behind the scenes. Yes please, let’s stick with the radar.

  4. This is interesting post.Traval by plane is so good.

  5. Are the skies really getting “less friendly” like you ask in your opening sentence or is it just, like you say, that certain events are now required to be reported?

    I think you make a very strong case for weaknesses in the current system. It doesn’t seem much is new, except, perhaps, the average experience of ATC personnel due to retirement. No doubt that is a considerable factor.

    Is the practice of following the concept of “visual separation of aircraft” a new thing?

    I really appreciate your post. Nice blog you have here!

  6. Wow. Nice read. Thanks!

    Check Us Out! A Little Place For Some Internet Traffic Road Rage!
    Road Rage with A & A

  7. I don’t know whether this makes me feel better or worse

  8. My Uncle Bob was an air controller. I have heard stories that would scare you. I try not to think about it and put my faith in the pilots and their expertise to get me safely to my destination. Flown AA many times including a trip to Oz. You guys are good!

  9. […] post: Unfriendly Skies and the Avoidable MidAir Collision Share and […]

  10. Matt (The Evangelical Athlete) Says:

    it seems scary but it really isnt!

  11. Larry DesAutels Says:

    Many years ago, I witnessed a near collision of two aircraft, one on the ground preparing to take off, the other trying to land. The aircraft trying to land had to accelerate and climb to avoid the other. They were on crossing runways. This was back in the late 60s, so I don’t know how much of this was governed by the ATC. The airport was Detroit (DTW). I was a surveyor doing a land surveyor just outside the fence of the airport. I still believe in the ATC as a necessary part of flying.

  12. doodles Says:

    Doodles says “do you want to fight for the flight?”

    jewels says. “Serious flights are my favorite”

    Becky qoutes ca senator “organize fight, some time report time report date location acceptance poularity just get on the plane”

    realizing meenas invincibility

  13. stroogie Says:

    I just had a flight a couple weeks ago that took off from LA, flew for half an hour, then turned around and went back. The pilot said we had “strange engine vibrations.” He didn’t really think anything major was wrong, but he didn’t want to chance it, and I’m okay with that.

    I was several hours late getting home to St. Louis that day, but at least I made it home. Air travel is one of the few areas in life where I don’t mind a healthy overdose of safety paranoia.


  14. I agree, I’ll try to be more patient next time too and understand that while I’m just sitting there a whole lot can be going on elsewhere. I’m not sure whether it is true or not but incident investigations seem to take such a long time, that by the time a situation is realized , it could have become a whole lot worse.

  15. 2 Guys, 1 Blog Says:

    Dang I wasn’t afraid of flying until now. Actually I’m still not but this article is a definite eye opener. Speaking of Unfriendly skies, check out this article: http://2guysandablog.wordpress.com/2010/07/11/were-fed-ufo-sighting-over-china/

  16. I was on a plane once that nearly got into one of these near misses. It was crazy

  17. I for one value your opinion, given your credentials.
    If you say it ain’t safe… it ain’t safe.
    Safety has to be the paramount consideration, and if that pisses off a few little spoilt rich kids then that’s an added bonus.
    Thanks for a great post.

  18. Fascinating and scary. And great pics. You don’t mention anything about the ATC computer system–has it been upgraded or is that part of the problem too?

  19. Still frightened

  20. The Swift Papers Says:

    Just read your blog, very interesting.

  21. Interesting. Thanks for your input. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!


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  23. My Uncle Bob was an air controller. I have heard stories that would scare you. I try not to think about it and put my faith in the pilots and their expertise to get me safely to my destination. Flown AA many times including a trip to Oz. You guys are good

  24. baspaul Says:

    maybe the human should be taken out of the loop.. I remeber a 1960 era joke which went ¨This is your captain speaking, welcome on our flight to Berlin, the weather at our destination.. click! ..destinaton.. click! ..destination.. click! on autopilots and the public´s trust in them.
    We´ve come a long way since then and pilots are now more system managers if anything else. ATC is somewhat behind on that schedule but in 1st world locations the difference is not that big.
    The time has come to start thinking about computers entirely taking over the tedious job of guaranteeing seperation, on all fronts, internationally. Computers are simply much better at this job than any human could ever be.
    And this not only applies to flight, the control of any type of motorised traffic should be computer controlled, centrally, dramatically reducing fuel consumption, flow problems and traffic deaths.

  25. Very interesting post. When I look at ATC there are pretty large swaths of it that could be completely automated. The computers could juggle several thousand object in three dimensional space better than any human.

    But you’d definitely want redundancy built into something like that.

  26. How would you like this one? A local flight acadamy in Phx (DVT) contracted with the Chinese govt to train students who can barely speak english.
    Ive had to extend, short approach, and just plain hold my breath thinking it was my last moment.
    While this is happening, my TCAS is yelling “traffic-traffic”, the tower is scolding the student pilot and about 3 other chinamen are in the pattern walking on one another, radios keyed.
    Oh, its gonna happen. Count on it.
    question is where.
    I’d bet Socal or Hartsfield

  27. I hope that with the progression of solar technology, most notably the recent 24-hour flight of a plane powered by solar technology, that the propulsion of planes via jet fuel can be lowered. Maybe having planes flying around on solar technology will make this problem not be a problem anymore. 🙂

    With Love and Gratitude,

    The Intentional Sage

  28. Holy crap! I didn’t realized plane collisions were such a frequent problem! I’d love to say that you’ll get the staff, pay, and training necessary to keep things safe. However, like so many companies all over the world, the bottom line is money and safety comes at a distance second. Just look at the situation with BP.



  29. […] dejar un comentario » Apparently, the skies above our nation have become less friendly recently. The Washington Post recently reported on a dangerous trend in aviation: The NTSB is investigating almost a dozen midair near-collisions that have occurred nationally since it began to mandate that they be reported in March. They include an incident 24,000 feet over Maryland on March 25, when a Continental Airlines 737 came within about a mile of colliding with a Gulfstream … Read More […]

  30. wow! that to be a pilot is so difficult for what I see never has to be had great practises everything what it is necessary to to know….


  31. This is one of those things the average passenger wouldn’t even think about. I guess I’ve always been under the impression that it’s a big sky, and the odds of running into another plane would have to be slim. Obviously that’s not the case. Very interesting read.


  32. sayitinasong Says:

    OK… a bit more information that I really wanted to know… I’m a bit of a nervous flier and I find usually the less I know the better….

  33. oh!Realize what’s at stake here and stop the widespread use of visual clearances in crowded airport traffic areas.

  34. This is a very interesting article, thank you. Wish I had found your site earlier, look forward to reading more.

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