ATC Safety Program Comes Under Scrutiny

Aviation International News » October 2012
October 3, 2012, 1:20 AM

A program that lets air traffic controllers voluntarily report safety concerns without fear of reprisals has come under criticism from the Transportation Department’s inspector general, who told Congress that “significant improvement” is needed to find the root causes of safety risks.

The FAA modeled the Air Traffic Safety Action Program (Atsap) on another voluntary safety reporting system used by selected airlines. Known as the Aviation Safety Action Program (Asap), that mechanism promises airline employees that no punitive or disciplinary actions will be taken as a result of reporting errors that could affect safety, provided those errors are not the result of gross negligence or illegal activity.

Once a three-member event review committee (ERC) accepts a report, the FAA cannot take disciplinary action against the employee involved. However, the ERC can recommend that the employee undergo enhanced training. ERC decisions are made by consensus, meaning that all three members of the ERC must agree that the resolution of the event falls within their range of acceptable solutions.

“We found that although the FAA completed Atsap implementation at all ATC facilities in 2010, the agency will need to make significant improvements before Atsap [can] effectively identify and address the root causes of safety risks,” the report said.

“For example, due to Atsap provisions designed to protect controller confidentiality, much of the Atsap data that the FAA collects is not validated, raising questions about the effectiveness of these data for analyzing safety trends,” the report said. “We also found that the FAA’s oversight of Atsap lacks effective management controls.”

The FAA does not have a formal process to review the effectiveness of decisions made by the program’s review committees to ensure that report acceptance criteria are followed rigorously and that conduct issues are dealt with appropriately. Failure to address potential deficiencies in transparency and accountability may lead to the perception that Atsap is an amnesty program in which reports are automatically accepted, regardless of whether or not they qualify under the program’s guidelines, the IG said.

“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,” said House Transportation Committee chairman John Mica (R-Fla.). “Controllers must conduct themselves in a professional manner.”

The IG found that the ERCs responsible for reviewing submitted Atsap cases are accepting reports regarding controller conduct, rather than just operational errors. Atsap reports filed by controllers caught watching a personal video player while on duty and sleeping while on duty were accepted.

In addition, the IG found that the ERCs do not always follow the requirements in the agreement between the FAA and National Air Traffic Controllers Association and that the FAA is not enforcing all parts of the agreement.

The FAA initiated Atsap in July 2008 as a voluntary, non-punitive reporting program to encourage FAA air traffic controllers to report safety events and concerns. The DOT IG’s audit report was requested by members of Congress.

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Doug Church
on October 3, 2012 - 2:03pm

While we completely agree with comments made during House Aviation Subcommittee testimony by the Inspector General that a non-punitive safety reporting system like ATSAP is a strong inducement to better reporting of safety issues, we do have a few concerns about some criticisms the IG has made of the program today.

The bottom line is that since the beginning of implementation in 2008, no other safety program has identified and fixed more local and systemic problems than the ATSAP program.

More than 60 percent of the 21,462 Air Traffic Organization (ATO) employees who are eligible to participate in the ATSAP program have submitted at least one ATSAP report. We agree with the FAA that this marks a giant step forward for safety. The ATO now has more and better-detailed safety data than before. The high level of participation shows controllers see the program as a way to improve safety.

The ATO is analyzing and acting on the data to improve safety. Much of this data might have remained unknown and uncollected if not for ATSAP.

Safety is an air traffic controller’s top priority. The FAA’s data validates our long-held belief that our reporting system works and is helping to keep America’s aviation system the safest in the world. We are continuing to collaborate with the FAA to improve the system and enhance aviation safety.

NATCA’s Rebuttal to Key Specific Points in the Report

DOT IG: “Deficiencies with ATSAP data analysis limit FAA efforts to identify and mitigate safety risks.”

NATCA: While there is always room for improvement, the ATSAP program is a major leap forward. It has boosted the number of reports of problems filed with federal authorities and increased the resolution rate of safety issues around the country. This is a direct result of the robust and comprehensive data analysis processes currently in place. For example, we are members of and work closely with the well-regarded Aviation Safety Information Analysis & Sharing program. We give our information to the NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System. We also use experts from the Fort Hill Group to analyze our information and provide reports.

DOT IG: “The data that FAA relies on for identifying safety trends are often not verified for accuracy by the (Event Review Committees) ERCs.”

NATCA: We gather both subjective and objective data – on purpose. We neither need nor want to validate everything we learn because we want the unadulterated views of the safety professionals submitting reports. The goal is to compare the safety professionals’ versions to what actually happened. That gives us the best data to act upon.

DOT IG: “FAA does not effectively communicate safety data to facilities.”

NATCA: We disagree with this statement. The FAA provides every facility regular ATSAP briefing sheets, covering a vast array of important topics that affect every air traffic controller. This statement is clearly printed at the top of the cover page of the briefing sheets: “Please post throughout your facility, and utilize the subject and lessons learned during crew briefings as a method to raise awareness within the workforce.” In addition, facilities can – and often do – submit requests to the ATSAP program to support local initiatives that address safety problems. These help both nationally and locally because safety risks and trends affect controllers all over the country.

DOT IG: “Facility managers do not always understand their rights and obligations under ATSAP.”

NATCA: The FAA has provided every conceivable resource to facility managers to understand the full scope of the program. Training was provided during the initial rollout. Follow-up training sessions were also conducted and ATSAP communications, as stated above, have been successful and comprehensive.

In addition, ATSAP’s Event Review Committees members also participate in the Operational Supervisor’s Workshops on a monthly basis. This training provides front line managers with training about ATSAP’s processes and participants’ responsibilities. The workshops also provide front line managers with the ability to directly ask the ERC members questions, which they regularly do.

DOT IG: “FAA’s oversight of ATSAP lacks management controls in key areas.”

NATCA: The FAA, in fact, reviews the effectiveness of ERC decisions and of corrective action requests. The program office tracks the completion of the requests, the responses to them and the implementation of the corrective action plans that follow. Facilities must tell the ERC if the implementation of the corrective action plans was effective and if any skill enhancement training was effective. The ERC determines if an issue was successfully completed.

Gone, thankfully, are the days of “one size fits all” in the area of working to mitigate safety risks in the system. The success of the FAA’s move to a true safety culture has stressed effective training rather than punitive training. This works better. When safety professionals make mistakes, they can now learn from those errors, self-correct and improve. The system is safer as a result.

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Richard
on October 4, 2012 - 11:20pm

You must be Kidding when it comes to Public Safety at El Monte Airport (aka EMT) the Control tower Allows Formation Flying Over Residental Homes and Schools and Business. Maybe Someone should Define Safety for the Public as our community Get None from FAA and LA County.
when you have 2 to 4 planes fly over homes / schools / business at Approach Altitudes (less than 500 AGL) in CLOSE FORMATION Where Our Safety. Contacting FAA All we get is Their Opponions Not The Rules. We get tried of Spending time Fighting the FAA and LA County so we have Collected a List of Lawyers that will be ready to TAKE ALL they can from Each Person Involved with Airport / county / planes.
If any readers believe they are Smart Tell us what the Debri feild is for lets say 2 planes that have colided at an altitude of 500 ft at approach altitude (Chinese YAK)

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Steve
on October 5, 2012 - 12:38pm

I have to heartily agree with Representative Mica. The ATSAP program has become a veritable "Get Out of Jail Free Card" for air traffic controllers, and has deviated away from its original intention, i.e., identifying root causes of chronic problems.

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