When midnight rolled around and flight traffic thinned out, air-traffic controllers guiding planes in the busiest U.S. corridor whipped out laptops to watch movies, play games or gamble online.
Controllers on break inflated air mattresses and napped on the floor. Some left before their shifts were over. They cursed at managers, refused to train new controllers, and flouted rules requiring them to pass on weather advisories to pilots.
“It was blatant and in your face,” Evan Seeley, a former manager in the Ronkonkoma, New York, tower who came forward last year, said in a phone interview yesterday.
Those and other allegations made by Seeley were corroborated by investigators from the Federal Aviation Administration, according to reports released this week by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an agency formed to help and protect whistle-blowers inside federal agencies.
Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner sent a letter on May 8 to the White House and Congress detailing findings in Seeley’s case and six other verified whistle-blower complaints, saying the FAA and Department of Transportation were slow to address them or hadn’t acted.
In New York, investigators found a facility in which FAA managers were unwilling or afraid to discipline controllers’ union members, the reports said. Supervisors who tried to enforce the rules had their cars vandalized or were threatened. The result was widespread violations of rules that undermined safety, reviews by the special counsel and FAA found.
Lack of Urgency
Seeley, who’d worked in Fort Worth, Texas, before coming to New York in February 2010, said he was shocked by what he saw.
“The advice from the seasoned front-line managers was: you keep your head in the sand,” he said.
The FAA has a higher rate of employees seeking whistle-blower protection than any other U.S. agency, according to the special counsel office’s preliminary review.
“There did not seem to be the level or urgency that we thought many of these claims really deserved by the agency,” Lerner told reporters that day.
The New York case was an exception to Lerner’s concerns in one regard: As the FAA was rocked last year by disclosures that controllers were sleeping on the job across the U.S., agency teams descended on the facility on Long Island. Within months, they’d corroborated most of Seeley’s allegations.
On Sept. 6, the FAA replaced the facility’s top managers and brought in experienced supervisors from other locations to serve as mentors for the remaining staff.
“It is clear, given the number of Mr. Seeley’s allegations that were substantiated in this investigation, that significant corrective actions are required,” the FAA’s internal investigation found.
While Lerner said she was satisfied with the outcome, she noted in her letter that the response occurred after Seeley took his concerns to the media.
The FAA didn’t respond to questions for this story about specific complaints, saying in an e-mailed statement that it has an office dedicated to investigating charges by employees of impropriety and safety lapses. That division, the Office of Audit and Evaluation, oversaw the investigation in New York, according to documents released by the special counsel.
“We are concerned when we hear about rare examples that deviate from the high standards we set for ourselves and are determined to work with the FAA to correct any such issues,” Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said in an e-mailed statement today.
Safety is the top priority of the union, which represents about 15,000 controllers, and it’s working with the FAA to improve professional standards, Rinaldi said in the statement. “NATCA condemns any behavior in the control facility that undermines that goal,” he said.
Seeley arrived at the New York Center at age 25 after entering a one-year training program to become a manager. He said he was told he was the youngest tower supervisor in the country.
Friends in Fort Worth warned him about the reputation of the New York Center, which oversees higher-altitude traffic in the skies above parts of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland, he said.
Even with the warning, he said, he was stunned by what he saw.
A controller cursed out another supervisor in front of Seeley his first day on the job. Within a week, copies of a photo from Seeley’s Facebook page appeared all over the facility, including in the men’s room. The manager who had informed him of the photos said it didn’t warrant a response, he said.
“She said they are just trying to get under your skin,” Seeley said. “They’re hazing you a little bit. If you make a big deal out of this, it will just get worse.”
One night, a controller using his laptop failed to notice a warning on his radar screen that he needed to switch to a backup system, Seeley said.
Seeley hadn’t made any effort to stop the use of personal electronics at that point. This was different, he said, because of the warning. So the young manager reported the controller.
Another manager urged him not to press the matter. “He said you need to think twice,” Seeley said. “I wouldn’t do this. It’s not going to go over well for you.”
Within weeks, someone ran a sharp object across Seeley’s car, scratching the paint, he said. On another occasion, one of his tires was slashed.
FAA regulations are precise in describing how controllers must issue instructions so that their staccato radio transmissions aren’t misunderstood. The regulations also require that controllers pass on weather reports and other information to pilots.
These rules often weren’t followed in New York, Seeley said. When investigators visited the facility last year, they listened in on 32 hours of activity. Almost half of the controllers they evaluated weren’t complying with FAA rules, according to the agency’s findings.
On Jan. 2, 2011, Seeley was demoted from his management position to controller. His supervisors told him his performance was sub par. Seeley said it was retribution, though that wasn’t part of his whistle-blower complaint.
Later that month, as he was studying for his new job, he returned to his desk to find a message on a blackboard next to his desk:
“Rat fink, watch ur back,” it said, according to Seeley. An arrow pointed to the chair where he’d been sitting. Seeley complained to the special counsel.
On Jan. 20, an AMR Corp. American Airlines Inc. jet and two U.S. Air Force C-17s almost collided while under the control of two New York controllers. They passed within 200 feet (61 meters) vertically and less than a mile of each other, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
Poor communication between the controllers, one of the issues Seeley had raised, was one of the reasons for the incident, he said. He decided to take his story to the New York Post.
A short time later, he was offered a transfer back to Fort Worth and accepted.
Seeley said he hasn’t seen the issues he saw in New York at other facilities. While there was tension within the Texas center when he returned, that has mostly died down, he said.
“Now I have as normal a career as I can expect,” he said.