Whistleblowers highlight safety issues

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The FAA has the highest per employee whistleblower count in government. This startling statistic was sent to the President and Congress in a letter from the Office of Special Counsel, the agency responsible for protecting government employees who report problems where they work.

Carolyn Lerner, the attorney who drafted the report, said that the report is just “a snapshot” of issues and a glimpse into an on-going problem that is plaguing the FAA. She said when the OSC was presented with seven cases over a two-month period, it caused the agency to look at FAA records as far back as fiscal year 2007.

In that time, 178 disclosures were referred to the OSC, including 87 for safety issues. Roughly half of those, 44, were considered serious enough to be referred back to the Department of Transportation. The DOT substantiated all but five of the 44. Across the entire federal government, on average, only 5% are deemed serious enough for further action.

In one instance, a whistleblower said that careless and casual communication with pilots had caused at least one serious error resulting in a near-collision of two aircraft. Another alleged that conflicting tarmac guidelines were confusing controllers, who regularly directed aircraft on takeoff to come too close to aircraft aborting a landing. In another instance, planes departing one airport were frequently directed too close to jets flying into an international airport.

Other allegations that were substantiated included controllers who slept in control rooms, left shifts early, used improper procedures, and engaged in work stoppages to gain overtime.

In the letter, Lerner detailed seven of the alleged FAA inactions. She said the cases “paint a picture of an agency with insufficient responsiveness given its critical public safety mission.”

“Whistleblower information is one of the best tools to keep the flying public safe, and every safety concern raised by FAA employees has to be taken seriously and handled promptly,” said Senator John (Jay) Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. He added there is no excuse for bureaucratic delays when safety is involved, and the FAA has to take steps right away to make this a high priority.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association has in the past said it supports the FAA’s efforts that encourage controllers to report their mistakes and other safety problems.

A statement from officials at the Transportation Department said it will “promptly review, investigate, and take aggressive action where necessary to assure our safety standards were met.” The statement added that the DOT is confident that the flying public is safe, thanks in part to changes that DOT and the FAA have already made in response to whistleblower concerns.

General aviation organizations, flight instructors, and FBOs have long encouraged pilots to stay alert, to ask controllers to repeat if not fully understood, and to use correct language, not slang.

And one more thing: If a controller makes a mistake, it might cost him or her a job, but it could cost the pilot his or her life.


Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.


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