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Flying to or over the DC area any time soon?  Better be on guard--as a new generation of air traffic controllers starts patrolling the skies over National and Dulles take over, there's been an alarming rise in near-catastrophic collisions.

The incidents come as a new cadre of controllers is being trained to replace a generation of retiring controllers, a legacy of the 1981 strike during which President Ronald Reagan fired virtually the entire staff of controllers. Forty-nine of the 177 controllers who handle in-flight traffic for the Washington region, the third-busiest airspace in the nation after New York and Los Angeles, have yet to be certified in all aspects of their job, according to the FAA.

For those of you keeping score, that means over 27 percent of the controllers in DC aren't completely certified--a staggering figure, in proportion to the total number of controllers.  With a large number of recent retirements and a pay freeze that was in place until recently, there's been a shortage of experienced controllers.  

The FAA has had to turn to recent training school graduates in order to fill slots at major hubs.  With that many inexperienced controllers in place, this spike in near-misses was almost predictable.  Among the more recent near-collisions:

  • Last Monday, a United jet coming into National nearly crashed into a business jet leaving Dulles.  Onboard warning systems alerted the pilots with 15 seconds to spare.  The United pilot could actually see the business jet pass under him.
  • On March 25, a Continental jet came within a mile of colliding with a Gulfstream jet.
  • Another Continental jet came within 3,900 feet of a military plane landing at Andrews Air Force Base.
  • A passenger shuttle jet leaving Dulles was turned into the path of a commuter plane leaving National, and a crash was only avoided due to the onboard warning systems.
  • A JetBlue plane headed for Dulles came within 3,600 feet of a charter plane also headed for Dulles after being turned into its path.

In all four cases, the planes came so close that they merged into one dot on the radar screen.

In another incident, a trainee who had never handled runway changes before found himself responsible for 11 planes.  A series of errors--some by more experienced controllers--resulted in several pilots running low on fuel.

Things should get better, though.  A new contract is in place, and the FAA plans to hire more experienced controllers.  

Originally posted to Christian Dem in NC on Mon Jul 05, 2010 at 10:13 AM PDT.

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