Controllers at Southern California's principal air traffic control center may have made 12 potentially dangerous mistakes this month--the most in any month since 1984--but none of the latest incidents actually posed a threat to aviation safety, the center's boss said Friday.
Don D. Early, air traffic manager at the Los Angeles Air Route Traffic Control Center in Palmdale, said that over the years, such incidents seem to happen in "bunches," and no special significance should be given to the latest figures.
Nonetheless, Early announced last week that the latest rash of apparent errors--the 12 in less than a month compare to an average of about 4 1/2 per month last year--had prompted him to order a halt in on-the-job training of less experienced controllers by more veteran personnel so that all the controllers could concentrate on doing their jobs.
Early said Friday that as a result of the incidents this month--incidents in which aircraft strayed closer to each other than they should have, but not close enough to constitute a "near miss"--15 controllers were temporarily placed in a "non-operational status" while Federal Aviation Administration personnel conducted an investigation.
As a result of this investigation, he said, three controllers were returned to duty and the other 12 were briefly "decertified." Early said decertification "means that until they received additional training, we wouldn't permit them to perform their duties."
Early, who said he called Friday's news conference in Lancaster to put recent news accounts of problems at the center "in their true perspective," told reporters that upon completion of this training, 11 of the 12 were returned to duty. The 12th, he said, is away on jury duty.
Early said that because of the continuing investigation, he could not provide any further details about the latest incidents at the center, which controls traffic over a 180,000-square-mile chunk of airspace ranging across southern Utah, southern Nevada, western Arizona, Southern California and a stretch of the Pacific reaching 200 miles out to sea.
All he would say was that the latest incident occurred earlier this week, that the investigations stemmed from reports by the FAA's automated Operational Error Detection System--an electronic system known to controllers as "the snitch"--and that all 12 incidents involved violations of FAA standards for the separation of aircraft.
FAA regulations require planes flying below 29,000 feet to maintain horizontal separation of five miles and vertical separation of 1,000 feet. Planes flying above 29,000 feet are required to maintain horizontal separation of five miles and vertical separation of 2,000 feet.
Other FAA sources said last week that one of the latest incidents, on Jan. 1, involved two commercial jumbo jetliners, one belonging to Trans World Airlines and the other belonging to Air New Zealand. They said another, on Jan. 16, involved an AirCal Boeing 737 and three military jets.
Early stressed that while the 12 incidents in January are more than normal, they represented only a "minuscule" portion of the 137,067 flights handled by the center so far this month.
"We were within .008% of being perfect," he said. "The air traffic controllers and their supervisors are doing one hell of a job. I think they deserve a pat on the back."
Early said that despite recent news accounts about the repetitive failures of aging air traffic control radar, radio and computer systems in Southern California, the failure of one of these systems "has never been a factor" in any recent operational error by an air traffic controller.
"Mac" McClure, director of the FAA's Western Pacific Region, said earlier this month that, contrary to impressions that may have been created by an article in The Times, the replacement of most of the old air traffic control equipment at the Los Angeles Terminal Radar Approach Control Center at Los Angeles International Airport is on schedule and has not been delayed by a White House freeze on expenditures from the federal Aviation Trust Fund.