In March 2008, a mid-sized passenger jet, an Airbus A320, was approaching Kansas City International Airport for landing when an automated warning went off in the cockpit: collision alert.
The instruments said another plane was 700 feet away and closing.
The first officer looked for the other plane but couldn't spot it. The Airbus pilot pulled up as the computer's commands grew increasingly urgent: Climb! Climb faster!
The alerts stopped. The other plane could now be seen veering away. The instruments said it had come within 300 feet of the Airbus, less than three times the nose-to-tail length of the plane itself.
A collision could have been catastrophic. Instead, the Airbus landed safely and quietly, the latest survivor of the hundreds of close calls reported in the safest decade of American air travel since the invention of flight.
"I'm so pissed off about this because so many reporters have screwed this up for so many months now," Doug Church tells The Pitch. Church is spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), the union for controllers. He's not pleased to hear that someone is writing about unverifiable reports. Again. "It's raw data," he says. "It's one side of a story that has a lot of sides to it."
That March 2008 incident is taken from a pilot's anonymous recounting for the Aviation Safety Reporting System, a snitch-and-bitch database of air events — some of them dangerous — that pilots and air traffic controllers encounter while working.
The particulars of that sweaty moment near KCI could not be corroborated. The Federal Aviation Administration, when asked about it, provided no further information. "This is written from a pilot's perspective and doesn't have a flight number, date or any other marker that helps us identify them," says Elizabeth Isham Cory, a spokeswoman for the FAA. "While this report may be legitimate, it lacks identifying detail."
Recent stories using this kind of unconfirmed data, and describing similar aerial mishaps, have appeared in publications nationwide, giving Church and the NATCA reason to be pissed. "It's given us a bad name for having fallen down on the job," he says.
Because here's the thing: According to more verifiable research, you're safe.
Statistics compiled by aviation manufacturer Boeing in June of this year* show that U.S. and Canadian airlines have averaged less than one fatal accident per million flights since 2000. To put that number in context, let's say the odds were one-in-a-million for driving. If you hopped in your car twice a day every day, you'd average a fatal accident every 1,400 years.
Boeing and other airline players, of course, have a vested interest in keeping those numbers as low as possible. When flying makes headlines, it's usually because what happened was especially nerve-shredding. Anyone who flies regularly might still be thinking about this past April 1, for example, when the ceiling ripped off a Southwest Airlines 737 midflight, precipitating an emergency landing. The episode led to a lot of public contrition from Southwest executives, who immediately grounded their fleet to make sure none of their other rides had convertible tops.
An airliner hasn't crashed in this country since 2009. The FAA has 46 databases that it uses to track safety; it wants to expand to 64. On the rare occasion that a plane crashes, the National Transportation Safety Board combs over the accident with obsessive meticulousness. If flight safety were a 14-year-old pianist, it'd be headed to Juilliard.
*POP-CULTURE FACT CHECK: You remember Say Anything, right? At the end of that 1989 movie, Lloyd Dobler — played by John Cusack — tries to convince his afraid-to-fly girlfriend that, statistically speaking, everything will be OK after the no-smoking light on their trans-Atlantic jet turns off. It's a metaphor for the young couple's holy-shit, flying-by-the-seats-of-our-pants teen relationship, and it also became an emotional touchstone for a lot of people who grew up in the 1980s. The movie ends on a cute note: The screen cuts to black as the no-smoking light dings off, cueing the credits and a happyish ending. But Boeing's statistics for global air travel say that, between 2001 and 2010, almost twice as many people (3,130) died during the cruise-to-landing stages of flight than during takeoff and climbing (1,640). So everything the 1980s taught us is probably wrong.
Meanwhile, we hold driving to a different standard. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 30,000 fatal vehicle crashes happened every year between 1994 and 2009. Over that same decade and a half, Americans asked for more statistical death in the form of speed-limit increases and the revocation of motorcycle-helmet laws.
Yet pilots and air traffic controllers continue to report thousands of bumbles, stumbles and potentially lethal events that happen over the normal course of air travel. And much of the action takes place over Kansas and Missouri.
The Aviation Safety Reporting System receives roughly 50,000 reports a year, about 20 percent of which are released to the public by NASA, which maintains the database. NASA has no authority to rebuke those involved, and those who file reports also win some immunity from FAA punishment, which encourages more reports. The database operates as a kind of Borg brain that assimilates errors into a single compendium of screw-ups — a live-and-learn digest for airline officials, as well as a kind of police blotter for the skies and a diary for those who traverse them.
Reports show pilots complaining about air traffic controllers, air traffic controllers complaining about being overworked, planes skidding off runways, drunken passengers peeing on food carts, and more of those near hits in a sky that seems not nearly big enough. Take, for instance, the crew of a 737 headed for Dallas. A report about that journey says the plane banked right after pilots noticed something falling from a plane above them. The object zipped by less than 1,000 feet from the left wing.
"As we got closer, it became clear that the object in question was, in fact, a person skydiving, as we were able to clearly identify their head, their arms, and their legs," the first officer later wrote. As in all the database's reports, the writer's name and gender — as well as the airline carrier and the specific times of the incident — have been redacted.
At Kansas City's Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport in July 2010, an air traffic controller reported that two aircraft had veered a little too close to each other. After the danger passed, the controller wrote, a conflict-alert (CA-CA) alarm beeped and flashed to warn of the danger.
"This is normal, in the terminal environment the (CA-CA) often waits until the aircraft have already passed before sounding; it's almost entirely useless as a safety aid," the controller wrote. "It's a running joke."
The controller wrote that another alarm, the low-altitude (LA-LA) alarm, never went off when it should have and that a controller at nearby KCI had handled the event sloppily.
"This was a pretty screwed-up operation throughout from a legal standpoint, and was pretty unsafe, too."
Yet when The Pitch asked the FAA about this mishap, they said they had no record of it and that there had been no similar complaints. Isham Cory says some details in the report itself don't make sense and are"very suspect."
"If this was a controller and if this person is still in the area, we'd like to talk to them because they detail several procedural errors that they made themselves," Isham Cory says via e-mail. "It doesn't add up. This is very odd."
After a March 2001 flight took off from St. Louis and was headed through Kansas City's airspace, one captain reported, flight attendants were about to start serving drinks when they noticed that the bathroom was occupied. A young man in his 20s was inside, but the attendants soon realized that there were no empty seats on the plane. He then jammed the door shut.
"This is the captain, and I need you to open the door now!" the pilot ordered.
The young man immediately opened the door and claimed that he was sick. He said he couldn't remember his seat number.
He didn't have one.
According to the pilot's report, the young man broke down and explained that he had been a college intern for a ramp service for one month, which gave him flight passes and a temporary ID card that now had an altered date. He was heading for a wedding in Las Vegas with a friend, and he'd first boarded the flight in Philadelphia as an off-duty airport worker but realized during a layover that he might not be able to get a seat on the next flight. So he slipped past the boarding agent while she was distracted and hid in the plane's bathroom while the flight attendants were busy.
The pilot and the dispatcher agreed that they would continue to Las Vegas with the stowaway. Police picked him up when the plane landed.
The event sounds today like an almost charming relic of the pre-9/11 era, a far more tolerant time. Robert Raffel, an associate professor of Homeland Security at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University with 17 years of experience in the FAA's Office of Civil Aviation Security, applauds the pilot's handling of the event as it was described in the report.
"The suspect was already aboard, and his reason for boarding was plausible (stupid, perhaps, but plausible)," Raffel tells The Pitch in an e-mail. "In my humble opinion, a sensible post-9/11 approach to security is one that takes into account common sense and experience and is not one in which everyone's hair is on fire."
Raffel believes that there has been an "eclipse of no-tolerance policies in favor of some common sense occasionally." Yet airline security remains vastly altered.
The Transportation Security Administration's experiments with patting down children and detaining grandmothers are well-documented. Getting less attention are other odd defensive crouches, as on March 4 of this year, when the nation's airlines executed a stealthy mass neutering of bathroom oxygen generators on 6,000 planes. That means less combustible oxygen for prospective terrorists to detonate — but no more working oxygen masks in bathrooms when planes have lost air pressure.
"In order to protect the traveling public, the FAA eliminated the problem before making the work public," the FAA said in a news release. "Had the FAA publicized the existence of this security vulnerability prior to airlines fixing it, thousands of planes across the U.S. and the safety of passengers could have been at risk."
One report from the NASA snitch-and-bitch database shows a CRJ-900 captain arguing that the move had endangered his flight.
"I did not know why the oxygen generators were removed from the lavatories and in what way this was related to security," the pilot wrote after reading a secretive memo notifying the crew that the tanks had been removed. The flight was scheduled to reach 35,000 feet, which the pilot noted would not normally be allowed with oxygen deactivated. "The note on the release left a lot of questions unanswered. I contacted the Dispatcher who told me that this was in response to a security threat whereby terrorists could use the O2 generators to make a bomb."
When the pilot told the flight attendants that there were no longer usable oxygen masks in the bathroom, they said they didn't know what to do if the cabin experienced rapid decompression. The pilot tried to contact a flight manager on the ground for answers.
The manager was hostile at first and told the pilot to "just operate the flight," the pilot reported, because "they didn't want 'everyone and his brother' to know about it."
The FAA never identified a specific threat.
Meanwhile, according to one study by the Aviation Medical Society of Australia and New Zealand, 40 to 50 planes worldwide each year suffer rapid-decompression accidents.
The Pitch's review of the Aviation Safety Reporting System records from 2000 to 2011 involving flights at Kansas City's airports reveals a potpourri of errors: near collisions with weather balloons and other flights, actual collisions with snow drifts and jetways, and infractions in basic flight procedure (including the occasional jet straying onto the wrong runway).
The records are only a sample of the total reports submitted to NASA, and because they're also largely uncorroborated by the FAA, it's impossible to paint a complete picture of everything that happens at KCI. According to the FAA's own database — which contains far fewer reports — eight people were injured and none killed in accidents involving KCI from January 2000 to September 2011.
But one trend is clear from NASA's data. A troubling patch of more than 10 reports between 2006 and 2008 points to a staff shortage of air traffic controllers at KCI, which led to multiple mistakes.
Some flight errors reported are technological, others human. All underscore certain ultimate political realities of air travel. (The notes below are reproduced in their original wording and style, including the all-caps formatting that makes the data read like dramatic news rolling off a teletype.)
March 2007: "FOR THE PAST 4 MONTHS, STAFFING AT OUR FACILITY HAS BECOME A MAJOR PROB. WE HAVE HAD NUMEROUS RETIREMENTS AND OTHER CTLRS HAVE BEEN MEDICALLY DISQUALIFIED. WE WERE ORIGINALLY ALLOTTED ABOUT 42 CTLRS. WE NOW HAVE ONLY ABOUT 29 THAT ARE QUALIFIED TO WORK TFC."
The retirements were an anomaly whose roots reach back three decades. In 1981, air traffic controllers walked off the job en masse, demanding higher pay. Then-President Ronald Reagan crushed the strike by firing the controllers. That led to a hiring wave of brand-new controllers; 25 years later, this yielded a retirement boomlet that left airports shorthanded during the late aughts, according to the FAA's Isham Cory.
Several safety reports describe controllers working through snowstorms while understaffed, and several say FAA management — embroiled in 2007 in another prolonged contract dispute with the controllers' union — was reluctant to pay overtime for extra controllers. Even when management granted overtime or shuffled shifts to fill the gaps, fatigue was an issue.
March 2007: "THE MGMNT AT THIS FACILITY IS GOING TO CONTINUE OPERATING THESE DANGEROUS SHIFTS UNTIL SOMEBODY DIES."
The staffing problems continued. In April 2008, one controller described going to work to find that four trainees would be in the tower and that FAA management would not approve overtime for more experienced controllers to lend support. "THESE YOUNG PEOPLE ARE INEXPERIENCED AND CANNOT BE IN CHARGE OF THE TWR SINCE THEY ARE ONLY CHKED OUT ON A FEW POS," the controller wrote. "THIS HAS BEEN HAPPENING ON A DAILY BASIS, AND I BELIEVE IT IS A RECIPE FOR DISASTER. FAA MGMNT KNOWS THE STAFFING PROB WE HAVE, BUT THEY EITHER DENY IT OR REFUSE TO DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT."
Today, these cries appear to be over.
"The staffing shortages that we had four years ago have been mitigated around the country and in Kansas City," says Church, of the NATCA. "We're in far better shape now. We have a new administration [President Barack Obama's] that actually cares about safety, as opposed to the last administration, which was not." He adds: "[There] could not possibly be more of a gap between the situation four years ago and today."
The FAA's Isham Cory says KCI needs 30 to 37 controllers in order to function properly, and that staffing for those positions at the facility is now at 130 percent.
But could problems return the next time controllers need a new contract?
Air accidents have a lot in common with biology: Crashes are the product of a series of events, much in the way that an organism is the latest expression of a sequence of genes.
The overwhelming majority of the incidents logged in the Aviation Safety Reporting System and at KCI are innocuous, like the stray bacteria silently dismantled by our immune systems without symptoms. A pilot notices if an instrument is broken or if an error occurs on approach, and a series of reactions quickly steers the flight toward safety. It's when the immune system breaks down — if pilots are tired and ill-prepared, if the tower is distracted and instruments fail — that a single malady multiplies into calamity.
The most recent fatal airline crash in the United States happened February 12, 2009, when a Colgan Air flight headed to Buffalo, New York, plunged into a house five nautical miles northeast of the airport, killing 49 people onboard and a resident in the house. The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigated the accident, said the crash was probably caused by pilot error. But the board's forensic analysis, released in a report a year later, pointed to a long-winded list of contributing factors extending far beyond the moment when the pilot steered the flight into a stall.
The NTSB analysis read in part: "The safety issues discussed in this report focus on strategies to prevent flight crew monitoring failures, pilot professionalism, fatigue, remedial training, pilot training records, airspeed selection procedures, stall training, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) oversight, flight operational quality assurance programs, use of personal portable electronic devices on the flight deck, the FAA's use of safety alerts for operators to transmit safety-critical information, and weather information provided to pilots."
The Colgan crash speaks to the future of flying as much as it does to aviation's past.
An August 30, 2011, Associated Press investigation revealed that an "automation addiction" had caused some pilots to forget how to fly. According to an FAA study, in "60 percent of accidents, and 30 percent of major incidents, pilots had trouble manually flying the plane or made mistakes with automated flight controls," the AP reported. The Colgan flight was one of the accidents cited.
Yet automation continues to take more and more flight duties out of human hands. In 2010, FAA researchers tested a system that would relay computerized weather warnings for pilots instead of relying on controllers to do it. Unsurprisingly, the computers did it faster. In general, an increasingly automated flight system would also mean that flights could land faster and closer together, saving valuable time for passengers and potentially cutting down on the natural erraticism of human behavior.
"There are a lot of things coming down the pipe to make our jobs better," Church says.
Bob Coffman, a member of the FAA pilot training committee, recently told the AP that pilots fly without autopilot for only about 80 seconds of a typical two-hour flight. Could air officials lower the danger of flight by decreasing pilot control still further, or would that leave even more pilots helpless in an emergency?
A world of automation would seemingly remove the thousands of unmistakably human accounts of flight problems now dotting NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System. But those accounts tell us much about the intangibles of flight for which computers can't necessarily adjust.
In March 2006, a pilot — let's call him Gary — was preparing his Boeing 737 for a nighttime takeoff from KCI. It was Gary's final leg of a three-day swing, and the flight was running 35 minutes late. There was no rush, he wrote, because there was no way they were getting home on time anyway. But when Gary powered up the engines, a couple of warning lights clicked on, and engine No. 1 wouldn't come online.
When the 737 rolled back to the gate, Gary's first officer asked him why he had shut down No. 1. Later, Gary's slightly geeky moment-by-moment account of what happened — the act of reconstructing events for the record — allowed him to realize that he'd accidentally shut down the engine with a careless hand while setting a brake. There had been nothing wrong with the aircraft.
It was an inexplicable gaffe for someone who had started thousands of engines. Gary summed up the chain of events simply as "the alignment of the planets."
"This," Gary concluded, "is one of those baffling human errors that my wife the flight surgeon revels in analyzing, as do I."
Someday, a few simple tweaks may alleviate the cosmic happenstance that Gary noted — an engine that starts itself, maybe a gentle automatic reminder voice in the cockpit. But until the machines take over, this was still Gary's fault, the latest defeat on the impossible flight to perfection.