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Taking air safety complaints seriously

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ACCORDING TO Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) whistleblowers, air traffic controllers in the New York area have slept on the job, left shifts early and used personal electronic gadgets while working in the control room. Emergency service helicopters have been inadequately equipped with night-vision systems, potentially interfering with pilots’ ability to read instruments. Unauthorized aircraft have entered U.S. airspace near Puerto Rico. Inconsistent runway rules at the Detroit airport have caused planes to come too close together during takeoff and landing. Planes have flown with electrical wiring and fuel tank systems that violate FAA airworthiness directives.

These are some of the cases disclosed to the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), an independent agency that investigates allegations of federal whistleblowers. OSC said it went public with the allegations after the FAA’s parent department, the Transportation Department, failed to adopt adequate corrective measures. In a letter to Congress and the White House calling for greater FAA oversight of air safety procedures, Special Counsel Carolyn N. Lerner described the reports as part of “an ongoing series of troubling safety disclosures by air traffic controllers and other FAA employees.”

The whistleblowers’ alerts require the attention of Congress and the White House, not only because they reveal potential gaps in aviation regulation that threaten public safety, but because their dismissal would send a disturbing message about the futility of federal whistleblowing.

What’s disheartening is that these latest disclosures appear to show a pattern of disregard for whistleblower complaints, at least until recently. In 2008, the House held hearings concerning whistleblowers’ allegations that FAA inspectors had allowed airlines to fly planes that had been grounded because of suspected fuselage cracking. FAA employees testified that incriminating documents had been destroyed and that they had been discouraged from reporting safety breaches. The OSC reports that the FAA has the highest number of whistleblower filings — 178 since 2007 — of any agency, of which 87 concerned air safety. Remarkably, half of the air safety complaints were deemed by OSC to merit further review, compared to 5 percent of whistleblowing complaints involving other agencies.

The FAA and Transportation Department argue that they have already changed course significantly, creating a new audit office in 2009 to handle complaints more appropriately and expeditiously. For example, after news reports surfaced about problems with air traffic controllers in New York, the agency replaced the management team and disciplined three of five managers. They note that the OSC has found only four complaints worthy of further agency review since 2010.

Yet in her letter, Ms. Lerner wrote that the numerous accounts of FAA inaction “paint a picture of an agency with insufficient responsiveness given its critical public safety mission.” Ms. Lerner detailed how, in the case involving faulty installation of helicopter night-vision equipment, “it required the years-long persistence of one whistleblower and two referrals from my office for FAA to acknowledge that its oversight was lacking and to institute a comprehensive plan to systematically assure compliance and, consequently, safety.”

In Ms. Lerner’s words, “the public properly expects zero tolerance for unnecessary risks.” So must the federal government.

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