Gulp! Air traffic controlers are self interested?!

We all know public employees are motivated primarily by the public interest, so I am sure this story from my colleague Bob Poole is an abberation. . . Inspector General Ken Mead has performed another real service with his Sept. 20th audit of the process for recording operational errors (violations of the FAA’s standards for keeping planes safely separated). FAA claims to have made modest progress in 2004 in reducing these errors, but the IG’s audit points out that accurate data only exist for 20 of the 524 ATC facilities. Only the 20 en-route centers have automated systems for identifying impending loss of separation, alerting controllers, and recording that fact. All towers and TRACONs, by contrast, rely on self-reporting of operational errors. And according to the IG’s report, such reporting is, shall we say, suspect. First, consider the raw data. Although en-route centers handle about 25% of all operations, their automated systems reported 684 operational errors in FY2003. By contrast, for the 75% of operations handled by towers and TRACONs, only 501 total errors were self-reported. And of those 501 reported tower and TRACON errors, 22% came from an outside source (i.e., were not self-reported by a controller or manager). By contrast, at en-route centers, only 4% of the errors were identified by outside sources. To reinforce your intuition that not everything is getting self-reported, the IG staff followed up on a whistle-blower complaint regarding the Dallas/Ft. Worth TRACON. Though this investigation is still in process, the preliminary findings are troubling. That facility had self-reported only two operational errors between January and June 2004. But digging into the data for just May and June, the IG’s sleuths found five more (unreported) operational errors.