One morning last April, a Delta Air Lines passenger jet stormed down a runway at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, hitting 138 mph. It was about to leave for Miami when an air-traffic controller realized he had given the plane clearance to cross the path of another jet that had just landed. He hurriedly told the pilot to abort takeoff, which jolted the passengers and risked damaging the aircraft. Fortunately, there was plenty of runway left for the plane to stop.
What happened that day became one of thousands of incidents captured each year in commercial aviation’s multilayered incident and accident reporting system. The apologetic air-traffic controller filed a report up through official channels in the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, which runs the air-traffic control system. There, FAA officials ultimately decided it wasn’t a potentially disastrous near-miss, and graded it a C, for no danger. A wide variety of reports in trends in aviation safety, which sometimes can be matched with technical information on speed and altitude automatically transmitted from aircraft, flow into aviation authorities under agreements among the FAA, airline operators, service companies, and unions. A special channel, operated by NASA, allows pilots, controllers, or others to submit reports under strict guarantees of confidentiality, to encourage them to report potentially dangerous practices or mistakes they might otherwise conceal for fear of exposing themselves to enforcement actions.*