FAA tries again to fix cover-up of air safety errors
By MICHAEL J. SNIFFEN Associated Press Writer
Article Last Updated: 04/25/2008 11:32:44 AM MDT
WASHINGTON—The Federal Aviation Administration announced Thursday its
second effort in three years to stop its managers in Texas from
covering up air safety violations—after a new investigation found the
misconduct continued into last year.
In the latest blow to an agency already under fire for letting airlines
ignore its safety directives, the FAA announced that the top two
managers of an air traffic control facility in Dallas-Fort Worth had
been removed from their jobs.
In addition, the Transportation Department’s inspector general found
FAA managers in Dallas-Fort Worth routinely and intentionally
misclassified instances where airplanes were allowed to fly closer
together than they were supposed to, the FAA said. Instead of calling
them operational errors or deviations from safety rules by FAA
controllers, the managers labeled them pilot errors or nonevents.
“We’re not going to stand for this,” acting FAA administrator Bobby
Sturgell told a news conference.
Hank Krakowski, a former United Airlines pilot and safety executive who
became FAA’s chief operating officer last September, acknowledged that
FAA had promised to fix the problem in 2005 but “today it’s clear to us
those commitments were not taken seriously by people in my organization
who were responsible.” He announced a new attempt to remedy the
The FAA only learned of the continuing problem because a
whistle-blower—controller supervisor Anne Whiteman, who first reported
in 2004 that agency officials were concealing safety violations—had
come forward again last year to say the FAA managers were still
underreporting safety violations by FAA controllers or now misreporting
them as pilot errors.
The new inspector general report that substantiated Whiteman’s latest
allegations was ordered last year by the U.S. Office of Special
Counsel, an independent investigating agency responsible for protecting
whistle-blowers. A brief summary of the findings was issued by the FAA.
Special Counsel Scott Bloch did not plan to release the report until he
had time to evaluate it in detail with whistle-blowers but said it
“seems to validate what our brave whistle-blower Anne Whiteman brought
“I continue to be concerned about a national trend,” Bloch said in a
statement referring to the Dallas-Forth Worth cover-up and the recent
disclosure of lax FAA supervision of safety compliance by Southwest
Airlines and American Airlines. “These problems exist because of a
culture of complacency and cover-up in the FAA. This culture did not
develop on its own. I believe it happened with the complicity of higher
management and could not have been possible without the support of
leadership in Washington.”
Transportation’s inspector general found that between November 2005 and
July 2007, FAA managers at the Dallas-Fort Worth facility misclassified
62 air traffic events as pilot deviations or nonevents when in fact
there were 52 operational errors and 10 operational deviations by FAA
controllers, the FAA said.
Krakowski said the problem appeared to be confined to the Dallas-Fort
Worth TRACON, a facility that controls flight below 10,000 feet and
within 30 miles of the Dallas-Fort Worth airport and several smaller
airports nearby. He said a nationwide sampling found only 3 percent
misclassifications elsewhere but 25 percent there.
The air traffic controllers’ union, deep into a two-year-old fight with
the FAA over manpower and safety, pounced on the agency’s announcement
to again criticize what it considers a shortage of workers. The
Dallas-Fort Worth facility has 57 fully certified controllers, down
from 99 in January 2006, said Darrell Meachum, vice president of the
National Air Traffic Controllers Association’s southwest region.
Meachum said 45 operational errors were reported in the first six
months of this fiscal year, up from 26 over the same period in 2007.
“The system is broken,” Meachum said. “These cover-ups by the FAA are
just par for the course.”
“This once great aviation safety agency has become ‘FEMA with Wings,'”
said Meacham, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency
which bungled the response to Hurricane Katrina.
The FAA says it has been able to replace controllers who resign or
retire with new hires who can work some but not all stations as they
complete on-the-job training that can take up to three years.
Controllers in training now comprise 25 percent of the national
controller workforce, up from 15 percent a few years ago. Controllers
union president Patrick Forrey said there are 22 trainees at the
Dallas-Fort Worth facility but nine of them are not yet certified to
handle any radar position.
To deal with the problem in Texas, Krakowski announced four nationwide
steps because “I’m not confident it can’t happen elsewhere.”
—The cause of safety violations will no longer be determined by
managers of air control facilities, but rather by a national quality
assurance team that will also audit facility reports. This team will
report to Krakowski’s top safety officer.
—Krakowski’s newly hired to safety officer, Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert
O. Tarter, will do a complete safety review of all procedures in FAA’s
Air Traffic Organization.
—By the end of this year, FAA will install in Dallas-Fort Worth
software that electronically detects any loss of the required distance
between airplanes and will install it nationwide by the end of 2009.
—A recently signed agreement with the controllers union, similar to one
already in place for pilots, will allow air traffic controllers to
report safety problems without fear of penalties.
Associated Press Writer Paul Weber in Dallas contributed to this