While the letter focused on seven specific cases, Lerner said they reflect a pattern of behavior by an agency that is slow to respond to criticism.
“This snapshot we’re looking at with these seven cases is not unusual, given what we’ve seen over the last 51
2 years,” Lerner said at a news conference Tuesday. “I think the facts speak for themselves. These are serious allegations.”
The criticism comes during the safest period in U.S. aviation history. There are more than 67 million domestic flights each year, and just one commercial flight has crashed in more than three years, the Colgan Air accident that killed 50 people near Buffalo in February 2009.
The Transportation Department issued a statement Tuesday in response to the counsel’s letter.
“We are confident that America’s flying public is safe — thanks in part to changes that DOT and FAA have already made in response to these concerns and other whistleblower disclosures,” the statement said. “DOT has been working with the Office of Special Counsel on these seven cases since the original referral in February 2010. At the same time we were responding to OSC, DOT worked with our Inspector General to promptly review, investigate and take aggressive action where necessary to ensure our high safety standards were met.”
The special counsel’s office investigates the claims of government whistleblowers, and Lerner said the FAA has one of the highest rates on whistleblower disclosures in the federal government.
She said her investigators found that half of the 87 safety issues raised by whistleblowers were serious enough to be sent to the FAA for a response.
“The FAA frequently delays taking necessary steps to address problems after they have been identified and even after the allegations are confirmed through an investigation,” Lerner said, pointing out that agencies are required by law to respond to her office within 60 days.
“One of the things that concerned me is that there were so many requests for extensions,” Lerner said. “It was taking close to a year in many cases to get findings back from the agency. There did not seem to be the level of urgency that we thought many of these claims deserved.”
The FAA has faced criticism and turmoil in recent years, with its defenders saying the agency moves deliberately to achieve safety goals despite pressure from the aviation industry, Congress and traveling public to expedite new programs.
Critics portray it as a lethargic bureaucracy and cite a failure to move more swiftly in developing a revolutionary $40 billion system that will replace the current air traffic management system.