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FAA Whistle-Blowers Ignored as Safety Hazards Persisted

In the past four years, a half dozen air-traffic controllers in the Detroit region came forward as whistle-blowers to report more than 20 allegations of safety hazards.

Instead of attempting to remedy the situation, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s air-traffic group seemed to encourage further violations, according to a memo from an agency investigator.

“Despite continued validation of safety allegations at Detroit, we found no evidence demonstrating substantive corrective action remediating these concerns,” the FAA’s director of audit and evaluation wrote in a Feb. 14 report.

Frustrated by the slow pace with which the FAA handled that and other complaints of aviation-safety hazards, the agency in charge of protecting U.S. government workers who raise concerns about fraud and abuse yesterday alerted the White House and Congress. The FAA has the highest rate of substantiated whistle-blower complaints among U.S. agencies, Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner’s preliminary review found.

“Given the recurring and serious nature of these concerns, I write with a strong recommendation that more rigorous oversight measures be put in place” at the Transportation Department and FAA, Lerner said in the letter.

Sleeping Controllers

Lerner’s letter substantiated seven allegations that the agency wasn’t adequately overseeing airline maintenance and that flight procedures at times created hazards. Two of the Detroit cases were included among the seven, according to special counsel records.

The Feb. 14 memo was among the documents Lerner’s office released yesterday.

Air-traffic controllers in the New York area slept on the job, watched movies, left work early and repeatedly violated safety rules, the special counsel said in the letter.

The controllers at the facility that monitors traffic in the busiest U.S. metropolitan flight corridor also used “careless and casual language” with pilots, leading to at least one serious incident of planes getting too close, according to the letter.

At Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, two controllers said it was impossible to ensure safety of landings and takeoffs because FAA procedures couldn’t guarantee that planes could stay safely separated, according to the letter. The special counsel agreed, Lerner said.

Lerner, at a press conference yesterday, distributed what she said were radar tracks of a Delta Air Lines Inc. Boeing Co. DC-9 and a Pinnacle Airlines Bombardier Inc. CRJ-200 almost colliding in the air on Christmas Day 2009 above the airport, where Delta operates a hub.

Repeat Complaints

The letter also contained charges that Delta violated FAA maintenance rules on wiring and fuel tanks, and that planes departing Teterboro Airport in New Jersey routinely got too close to jets flying to Newark Liberty International Airport.

In four of the seven cases in the letter, whistle-blowers had to make their allegations twice before the FAA acted, Lerner said.

The special counsel’s office has received 178 disclosures from FAA employees since 2007, 87 involving safety issues, Lerner said.

“This does not seem to be an aberration,” she said. “This goes way back.”

Supervisors Replaced

Half the safety-related aviation complaints were substantiated by initial investigations, compared with 5 percent of complaints that involve other government agencies. Of those 44 substantiated FAA cases, all but five were later verified in whole or part by the Transportation Department as well, according to the letter.

In the New York air-traffic facility, supervisors were replaced and disciplinary action was taken against three managers in 2011, according to the letter.

The Transportation Department has been working with investigators on these cases since February 2010 and is committed to making improvements where necessary, according to an e-mailed statement.

“We are confident that America’s flying public is safe,” the department said in the statement.

The New York region’s three primary airports have more than 1.3 million flights a year.

Delta Maintenance

The Transportation Department said it made changes in response to concerns and other whistle-blower disclosures, including eliminating the departure procedure in use at Teterboro. The FAA established an office in 2009 to investigate whistle-blower complaints, according to the DOT statement.

Delta’s maintenance work was done properly and in compliance with FAA regulations, and the carrier’s plans were approved by the regulator in 2008 and 2011, Ashley Black, a spokeswoman for the Atlanta-based carrier, said in an interview. Delta was told it needed to revise the wording in its maintenance documents, which it did, she said.

“At no time did this internal FAA issue impact the safety of Delta’s fleet,” Black said.

The FAA is considering enforcement action against Delta, according to Lerner’s letter.

The complaints are similar to issues raised by two FAA airline-safety inspectors who obtained protection in 2008 after their complaints that Southwest Airlines Co. had been allowed to skip mandated inspections were ignored, former U.S. Representative James Oberstar said in an interview.

Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat who held hearings on the matter while chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he tried to push the FAA to be more open to safety complaints.

“FAA should have been responding to these concerns,” he said.

Representative John Mica, a Florida Republican who now heads the same committee, urged the FAA in an e-mailed statement yesterday to examine the latest allegations.

“The special counsel raises some very significant concerns about aviation safety,” Mica said.

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