Commentary: Close calls have controllers and FAA pulling together

A recent increase in incidents of airliners passing too close to each other — including a close call over Anchorage — has the Federal Aviation Administration and the air traffic controllers union meeting to figure out how to keep U.S. planes apart.

The reason for the meetings is ominous, but Alaskans old enough to remember the bitterness of the 1981 air traffic controllers' strike and their subsequent firing by President Reagan can take heart that management and union are working together on this one.

An added stress in what is by definition a high-stress job is the fact many of those who replaced the fired controllers have been retiring in recent years, and it's a hard job to train new controllers and run a relentless air traffic system at the same time.

In a state where aviation is so important, and so many of us depend on commercial air travel, we're particularly keen on by-the-book separation of aircraft. There's a reason such separation is measured in miles. Distances close fast at the speed of aviation. The FAA appears to be emphasizing finding the causes of the problems and their solutions rather than assigning blame. Controllers have been encouraged to report mistakes with the assurance the mistakes won't be held against them; all employees are being asked to identify their main safety concerns; pilots are getting the word to use proper terms in communications with controllers; and an old ride-along program is coming back to put controllers in the cockpit so they'll have a better sense of the pilots' work.

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