The FAA revealed that air traffic control errors more than doubled in 2012 compared to the previous year. The actual rate of errors probably didn’t change all that much because there were no major differences in air traffic control technology or methods. What did change is how errors are discovered and reported. Is it the snitch machine again?
Abut 25 years ago pilots became aware of something called the “snitch patch” that was installed in air traffic control centers. Controllers called it the “snitch” because it would automatically record and report a loss of minimum separation of radar targets in the system. The term “patch” referred to the FAA’s decades long practice of patching new capability onto the primary ATC computer software. When we pilots heard about it we called it the “snitch machine.”
The snitch machine continuously monitored aircraft radar targets in the system. If the radar targets got too close together and violated the rules on minimum horizontal or vertical separation, the machine snitched that event to a supervisor.
In general airplanes in the system must be at least 3 nm apart horizontally or 1,000 feet vertically. Under some circumstances of altitude and distance from a radar site the separation requirements can be greater.
Before the snitch machine came along it was up to controllers or pilots to voluntarily report an error they made. Unless, of course, a supervisor saw the error then the voluntary part may go out the door. But a loss of separation can often be only a technical issue. There really isn’t much additional risk if two airplanes at the same altitude are 2.8 nm apart, for example, instead of 3 nm, so judgment was involved by all involved when that sort of error occurred.
When the snitch machine came along even smallest errors were recorded and, with that evidence, something had to be done to find out who made the mistake. When the snitch buzzed at the supervisor position, an investigation had to be launched to determine if it was the controller who made the mistake by assigning an improper altitude or heading, or if the pilot failed to fly the assigned altitude or course. There was no gray area, or “green between” as controllers say when radar targets pass close together.
The FAA launched a program of severe penalties for whoever the snitch machine caught making a mistake. Pilots were convicted by the machine’s evidence and given license suspensions. Controllers were immediately removed from their position and most likely were required to undergo remedial training and perhaps requalification if they set off the snitch machine. The FAA was going to stamp out system errors by hanging the guilty, and with the snitch machine it had irrefutable evidence.
Controllers reacted by putting a lot more than minimum space between airplanes. Pilots reacted by asking for lots of re-reads of clearances and by filing a NASA safety report any time they thought they may have busted an altitude assignment or heading. It was CYA on all sides, and I don’t think the system became safer, only slower.
Originally the snitch machine worked only in ATC Center airspace, not terminal. But now the technology is much more widespread and errors can be automatically spotted throughout most of the ATC system. That’s the main reason the number of reported errors is growing.
But it appears the FAA learned its lesson from the hang ‘em high attitude of the 1980s and 90s. Now it appears the feds are actually interested in trying to understand why an error occurred and devise ways to prevent future errors. At least that’s what I hear.
The controller’s union is working with the FAA to voluntarily find and fix system problems. And I don’t know of any change or increase in enforcement action against pilots who are caught up by the snitch machine. Unless there is evidence of willful or really careless operation, pilots are also being treated with remedial training and warnings instead of automatic suspensions.
Another positive change is that the FAA now ranks system errors on a scale from minor to really scary and close. The original snitch treated all errors big and small the same. Either the controller or the pilot had to pay. Now it appears that the FAA understands it’s more important to understand the cause of an error than to punish whoever made the mistake.
These changes fit into other safety programs created since the bad old 1980s. For example, nearly all airlines participate in quality assurance monitoring systems that allow review of flight data recorders to check for operational errors and unsafe practices. When the data show unsafe flights the pilots are not punished, but the information is used to warn all, and improve training and awareness. Even some corporate operators are hiring consultants to do the same for their flight crews by tracking flight data recorder history.
I don’t think I’m being Pollyanna. Having flown through and written extensively about the no excuses, no leniency policy of the original snitch machine I do see a difference now. Pilots and controllers are working together better to keep air traffic moving, but be safe. With all of the expected changes of Nextgen looming for 2020 and beyond, only that kind of cooperation can make the system work.