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Air Traffic Errors Rise With Controllers' Stress

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This week, millions of people will take to the air to fly home for Thanksgiving.

But tapes from Nashville's air traffic control may give you second thoughts. The tapes reveal air traffic controllers making mistakes, letting aircrafts get too close.

Our chief investigative reporter Phil Williams obtained the tapes.

At Nashville International Airport, stress is a fact of life.

But when you're flying the last people you want to be stressed are the air traffic controllers who are supposed to keep everything under control.

"There are facilities around the country that are having epidemic errors," says Mike Rogers, president of the local chapter of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

"There's some facilities that are having four, five and six errors in a week. That's pretty unheard of -- and it's fatigue."

It's fatigue that, the local union president says, is caused by a controllers shortage that has many of them directing flights six days a week, sometimes 10 hours a day.

"The more we work and the more we put ourselves in mental stress, the more possibility there are of errors, and errors are going to happen," Rogers says.

Among the errors: an incident here last December.

In that case, a DHL cargo jet was on final approach for Runway 2 Left, when a controller cleared a Flight Express twin-engine to take off on an intersecting runway.

Then, just as the plane began its takeoff, the controller realized his mistake.

Controller: "Wait, wait, wait. Flight Express 305, cancel takeoff clearance. Flight Express 305, cancel takeoff clearance and hold short of 2 Left."

But the Flight Express couldn't stop in time.  It rolled through the intersection just as the DHL jet crossed the end of the runway.

A few seconds difference, and the outcome could have been tragic.

Pilot: "Flight Express 305. Cleared 2 Left. Wasn't able to hold short. Sorry about that."
Controller: "Thanks for the attempt there, sir. It was totally our fault."

In that case, reports show that one of the positions in the tower was being worked by the controller-in-charge, who's supposed to double-check the other controllers.

"He's watching for any mistakes those guys may make, or miscommunications," Rogers says. "He's the extra set of eyes or the Big Brother to watch the overall operations."

And mistakes have been on the rise.

Two years ago, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says, there were just three such serious mistakes by controllers, called operational errors.

Last year, that doubled to six.

There have also been six errors this year. But the year isn't over.

Just three days before that DHL incident, a Southwest jetliner was leaving Nashville when a confused controller turned a ComAir regional jet into his path at 7,000 feet.

Controller: "Descend and maintain 7,000. Turn right heading 020."
Pilot: "OK. We're... hang on for a second. We're having to correct for the traffic ahead of us."

The pilot added, "That wasn't so good."

Rogers says, "We do this job and all of a sudden you have a close call -- in our standards -- and it'll shake you up."

And back in February, a corporate jet was heading for a landing in Nashville, when the pilot spotted another aircraft coming straight at him.

Pilot: "Nashville, ExecJet 349. You got any traffic in front of us?"
Controller:  "Ah... I do, sir. Turn right immediately to a heading of 360."
Pilot: "Right turn to 360."
Controller: "45 Sierra, turn right immediately to a heading 180."

Rogers adds, "We have had people that have had to take time off because they have been at the breaking point, and it's unfortunate. Situations happen that spook them or scare them a little bit, and it takes a toll on you."

The FAA insists there is no controller crisis, that the union's just trying to get a better contract.

"Our main objective is to be safe," Rogers responds.

The union says that it doesn't want the public to say that they were not warned, just in case something bad does happen.

"There is the possibility that more tragic things could happen. I hope not. I hope not at Nashville especially."

The FAA dismisses concerns about the six-day work week, saying only one of the six errors this year came on the sixth day.

But the union says that ignores the fact that, when they only have one day off and have to tend to chores, they're still tired when they come back to work.

The controller shortage was caused by a lot of controllers becoming eligible for retirement at the same time.

The FAA has been hiring controllers. But the union says they waited too long, and they're not paying enough.

An FAA spokesperson told NewsChannel 5:

"The FAA investigates each error in depth to determine why it occurred and to take necessary corrective action. When a controller is involved in an error, he or she will receive any necessary retraining to remediate the cause of the error.   Safety is the FAA's top priority.  Period. And everyone in the aviation system has a role in maintaining the world's safest aviation system, including industry and airports, as well as the controllers and FAA management.  The controllers do an outstanding job in maintaining the world's safest and largest national airspace system."  

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