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.