The Federal Aviation Administration and its budget have been a political football inside Congress for years, as lawmakers demand better performance from air traffic controllers while also seeking budget savings. But a safety incident at a Washington DC airport this week has a key House chairman talking about the need for a new space-based air traffic control system.
The chairman of the powerful House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee says an incident at a Washington DC airport in which three planes came too close to each other is evidence of broader deficiencies in America’s outdated air traffic control system.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., told the Washington Guardian he believes the July 31 incident at Reagan National Airport makes a strong case for why the country needs to upgrade its air traffic control system from current ground radar.
“I think we need to be moving toward a space-based system and instead of a post-World War II radar ground-based system so we know where planes are all the time,” Mica said in an interview Thursday recorded on Capitol Hill by TellDC.com, a Washington Guardian partner that interviews congressmen to get answers for constituents.
TellDC relayed the Washington Guardian’s questions to Mica, who was scheduled for interview time on Capital Hill on Thursday, and recorded his answers.
Mica said near misses at airports have become more frequent and he believes the Federal Aviation Administration needs sweeping changes, improved training and more alertness on the part of individual controllers.
“We do have some serious personnel problems, management problems and operational problems at FAA,” Mica said. “The incident we saw where three planes nearly collided is just part of problems we have seen repeated with near misses.
“What we need to get is get better training. We’ve got to make certain that people aren't just awake on the job but also alert on the job,” he added.
FAA has suffered through several years of controversies ranging from budget stalemates in Congress to safety incidents in which air traffic controllers were alleged to have fallen asleep on the job.
The Washington Guardian reported last week that a new system FAA installed recently to upgrade safety by allowing personnel to make anonymous complaints was routinely misused, collecting 41,000 complaints which often had nothing to do with safety and involved settling scores or petty employment complaints.
FAA officials sought Thursday to downplay the Washington incident, telling reporters the three planes never ended up on a collision course as some media had reported.
They said one of the planes immediately took evasive action, but the planes had gotten closer than the minimum three nautical miles and 1,000 feet in vertical distance required by regulations.
“At no point were the three aircraft on a head-to-head course. They were not on a collision course,” Acting FAA Director Michael Huerta said. “What we had was a loss of separation.”
But former airline pilot Jay Rollins told NBC that the incident was the result of "a very serious error." Asked how serious, on a scale of one to 10, he said, "approaching an eight."
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the planes got too close because of a “miscommunication” between traffic control on the ground and the Reagan airport tower. But a more serious mishap was avoided because an air traffic controller spotted the situation and took corrective actions, he said.
The Federal Aviation Administration is the federal agency charged with regulating airlines and maintaining civilian air traffic safety.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is the congressional panel responsible for helping set U.S. transportation policy, from highway construction to aviation safety
The Air Traffic Safety Action Program was deployed nationwide in October 2010 by the FAA to allow air traffic controllers to make anonymous complaints designed to improve safety without fear of retaliation.