he Inspector General of the Department of Transportation (IG) today released an audit of the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) voluntary reporting system for air traffic controller errors, and reported that significant improvements are necessary to make the reporting program effective in identifying and addressing aviation safety risks. For example, the IG found instances of improper controller conduct, such as falling asleep or watching movies on the job, have been reported under the program, with the controller in effect receiving amnesty for the misconduct.
The audit of the Air Traffic Safety Action Program (ATSAP) was requested by Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John L. Mica (R-FL) and Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Tom Petri (R-WI) and other Members.
"The intent of the reporting program is to improve aviation safety, not to provide amnesty to controllers who like to watch movies or take a nap while on the job," Mica said. "Controllers must conduct themselves in a professional manner."
"This program initiated by the FAA in July 2008 is a voluntary, non-punitive reporting program to encourage FAA air traffic controllers to report safety events and concerns," Mica added. "Although the FAA and National Air Traffic Control Association have taken steps to implement a productive voluntary reporting program, the IG found the FAA needs to make significant improvements to the program."
"The ATSAP program plays an important role in identifying risks and allowing the FAA to address safety concerns identified," Petri said. "We want to be sure that we are aware of issues and errors that occur so corrective steps can be implemented. However, we need to be sure we are getting all the benefits that we can from ATSAP and that all available measures are taken to alleviate identified safety concerns. FAA should take seriously the recommendations by the IG and make needed reforms to strengthen the program, and we will be working with the agency to ensure that this happens."
Under the ATSAP program there is no punitive or disciplinary action taken for operational errors reported by controllers within 24 hours, as long as the errors are not the result of "gross negligence of illegal activity."
According to the IG, the FAA is in the process of transitioning ATSAP to a sole source/non-sole source system similar to the airlines' voluntary reporting program. However, the FAA/NATCA agreement is much more generous than the airline agreements in regard to what qualifies as "sole-source." In the airline agreements, a sole-source report is any report where all evidence of the event available comes from the voluntary disclosure; however, the agreement between FAA and NATCA allows any operational error or deviation committed by a controller to be considered sole-source. Since sole-source reports are exempt from the requirement that all voluntary reports must be submitted within 24 hours of learning of the event, controllers apparently can file a report for any operational error or deviation at any time, up to weeks after the event and even when the FAA learned of the error or deviation from other sources.
The Inspector General, noting the program's potential to improve safety, highlighted additional significant problems in the program's implementation.
As noted above, the IG found that the Event Review Committees (ERCs) responsible for reviewing submitted ATSAPs are accepting reports regarding controller conduct, rather than just operational errors. ATSAPs filed by controllers caught watching a personal video player while on duty and sleeping while on duty were accepted. Furthermore, there is no review by the FAA of decisions made by ERC's to determine if they are in fact following the specifics of the program.
In addition, the IG found that the ERCs do not always follow the requirements in the agreement between the FAA and National Air Traffic Control Association (NATCA), and that the FAA is not enforcing all parts of the agreement.
While collecting data on the safety errors and concerns by air traffic controllers in the national airspace offer a valuable insight, the IG found that the FAA had only recently begun developing processes to analyze safety data collected. However, much of this data is not validated.
The program structure also is set up in such a way that management at air traffic facilities often will not be informed of safety errors that are going on at their own facilities.
"Voluntary reporting programs have played a role in achieving the high level of safety enjoyed by U.S. civil aviation today," Mica added. "However, the IG's report reminds us that such programs must be legitimate sources of safety information, and not amnesty programs. The FAA and NATCA must work together to address the problems outlined in the IG's report, including better transparency, improved data analysis, and better adherence to the agreed upon program structure, including what types of reports can be accepted into the program."
The Inspector General's audit will be released later today, and will be available at http://www.oig.dot.gov/.