The Federal Aviation Administration, said to have the highest rate of internal whistle-blowers among U.S. agencies, is speeding up its investigations of complaints and making needed safety improvements, its chief said.
FAA Acting Administrator Michael Huerta, in an interview yesterday after a speech in Washington, responded for the first time to allegations the agency ignored or took years to respond to safety concerns raised by employees. Huerta pointed to the agency’s creation in 2009 of a separate office to respond to whistle-blower complaints.
“In that period of time, we’ve made tremendous strides in responding to investigations that get referred to us,” Huerta said.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, the agency charged with protecting employees who seek protection for raising concerns about fraud and abuse, said in letters on May 8 to the White House and Congress that it had substantiated seven separate whistle-blower complaints against the FAA.
Among them was that air-traffic controllers on New York’s Long Island slept and watched movies on the job, and retaliated against supervisors who tried to enforce safety rules, according to agency records and Evan Seeley, a former center manager who brought the complaint.
“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, Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said in her letter.
The FAA had the highest rate of substantiated whistle-blower complaints among U.S agencies in a preliminary review, Lerner wrote.
Huerta defended the agency’s recent responses to whistle-blowers and didn’t directly address Lerner’s call for more oversight.
All but four of the cases referred for investigation by the special counsel in recent years have been closed, said Huerta, whom President Barack Obama nominated as administrator on March 28.
“That’s four too many,” Huerta said. “We have to continue to improve on that.”
The agency created its Office of Audit and Evaluation in September 2009 after revelations from the special counsel and congressional hearings that the FAA had ignored concerns raised by two safety inspectors about Southwest Airlines Co. being allowed to skip mandated inspections.
“This is a very, very high priority for us,” Huerta said. “What I have instructed our team to do is to ensure that we are being responsive and follow-up is quick.”
In four of the seven cases outlined in Lerner’s letter, FAA employees had to bring complaints to the special counsel a second time before safety issues were resolved, she said in a press conference.
Some previous whistle-blower complaints were driven in part by contentious relations between the agency and its unions, Bill Voss, president of the Alexandria, Virginia-based Flight Safety Foundation, said in a phone interview.
Another factor may be the tension between maintaining safety and keeping the world’s busiest aviation system running smoothly, he said.
“Every day they have to walk the line between being efficient and being safe,” he said. “That’s not always a clear line.”