Air Controller Discipline Probed by U.S. in Near Plane Crash

A government safety investigation into a near mid-air collision in Mississippi is the latest to show disciplinary problems at a U.S. air-traffic facility.

A controller who instructed two planes to take off toward each other June 19 near Gulfport, Mississippi, had been repeatedly disciplined and was described by another controller as “unsafe,” the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said in a report released yesterday.

The Federal Aviation Administration has struggled at times to discipline controllers through processes set out in the workers’ union contract and by the Merit Systems Protection Board for federal employees. More than four of every 10 air-traffic workers the FAA tried to fire between October 2009 and last May kept their jobs or were allowed to retire, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

“What is the ultimate goal here?” Michael Barr, a pilot and instructor at the University of Southern California’s Aviation Safety and Security Program, said. “The goal isn’t to protect people’s jobs. It’s to make sure we have the safest air traffic system possible.”

While controllers who make safety errors rarely intend to do harm, the agency needs to take action in extreme cases, Barr said in an interview.

Attempting to Fire

In 2009, a controller at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey was blamed in part for a fatal mid-air collision over the Hudson River because he was joking with an airport employee about barbecuing a dead cat while on duty. The controller in that incident was among those the FAA tried and failed to fire, according to agency data compiled by Bloomberg in July.

The FAA was also thwarted in attempts to fire a controller at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York who allowed his children to make radio calls to aircraft.

After the incident in Mississippi last year, the FAA suspended and decertified the controller who made the errors, the agency said in an e-mailed statement. The agency also made management changes at the facility.

The controller, identified by the NTSB as Robert Beck, received retraining and was allowed to return to work, the agency said in the statement.

Beck had been suspended from work two or three times prior to the incident and had received “informal” discipline on several other occasions. In one case, Beck had failed to disclose a drunk-driving arrest, according to the NTSB report.

Not Properly Staffed

In its investigation, the NTSB found that the airport tower wasn’t properly staffed, and the incident wasn’t initially reported as required by the FAA.

“The investigation revealed a number of deficiencies within the ATC facility that contributed to this incident,” the NTSB said in its report.

Within 18 seconds, Beck cleared a privately owned Cessna 172 propeller plane and a JetLink Embraer SA ERJ 145 regional jet operated for United Continental Holdings Inc. to take off on different runways. The planes lifted off and came within 300 feet of colliding, the NTSB said.

The regional jet was carrying 53 people and two people were aboard the Cessna, the NTSB said.

An FAA manager at the airport tower, Ron Burrus, told investigators “it was a miracle that no one died,” according to the report.

Controller Dennis Hilton, who also worked at the tower, said he rated Beck’s performance as a controller as “D-,” the NTSB said.

“Mr. Hilton stated that he considered Mr. Beck unsafe and that he avoided working with him when possible,” the NTSB documents said.

Working With FAA

“We take reports like these very seriously,” Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association union, said in an e-mail. “We welcome the examination of this incident by federal officials and plan to work with the FAA to continue to improve the safety of our aviation system.”

While there has been a history of cases in which controllers flaunted management and committed safety errors, the agency has made improvements in recent years, said Bill Voss, president of the non-profit Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Virginia, and a former controller.

“Overall, there is a higher level of self-reporting and accountability than there has been in the past,” Voss said in an interview.

The Mississippi incident underscored the NTSB’s decision last May to raise the issue of “professionalism” among pilots and controllers to its list of most-wanted safety enhancements, NTSB Chairman Debbie Hersman said in an e-mailed statement.

“There is no substitute for professionalism at every level of an air-traffic control facility, from the management to the individual controllers, all of which are responsible for the safety of the flying public,” Hersman said.

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