FAA Accused Of Hiding Controllers' Mistakes

The FAA has classified some errors by its controllers as pilot errors, the special counsel's report alleges.
The FAA has classified some errors by its controllers as pilot errors, the special counsel's report alleges. (By Chris Rank -- Bloomberg News)
By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 14, 2007

Two Federal Aviation Administration employees have accused the agency of "covering up" serious incidents in which planes got too close to each other in the Dallas area, according to a government investigator who suggested that such practices might extend to other parts of the country.

U.S. Special Counsel Scott J. Bloch, who investigates complaints made by government whistle-blowers, alleges that the FAA and its air traffic controllers have been reclassifying mistakes for at least a year in a widespread effort to reduce criticism from bosses and to help boost performance bonuses, which are based partly on error data.

Bloch disclosed his findings in a report released Thursday and in letters sent to the Transportation Department on Monday that call for an investigation by the department's inspector general. He said the FAA was seeking to reduce the number of controller errors by blaming mistakes on pilots. This reclassification of errors could result in "potential crashes" because repeated mistakes would not be corrected, he said in an interview.

"This cuts to the core of air traffic safety and why you have air regulations that controllers are supposed to observe," Bloch said, adding that the decision to reclassify reports was also the result of a "symbiotic coverup relationship between controllers and their bosses."

Top FAA officials defended their classification and safety systems, adding that they were going to take Bloch's allegations seriously.

"These are new allegations, and we haven't had time to analyze the data yet, nor do we have all the information from special counsel," said FAA Deputy Administrator Robert A. Sturgell. "We are going to be analyzing this situation very thoroughly."

Sturgell pointed to FAA statistics as evidence that there does not appear to be national coverup of controller mistakes. The number of controller errors dropped only slightly, to 995, from October through July 10, compared with 1,024 recorded during the corresponding period a year earlier, Sturgell said.

"That is not a big difference that would indicate a nationwide issue," he said, adding that the FAA has a "robust" audit system to ensure that errors are classified correctly.

Bloch's report, which relied heavily on information provided by two whistle-blowers, came just days after the FAA changed the way it classifies errors made by its controllers, known as operational errors. The controllers' union has questioned the wisdom of changing the classification system, saying it is a way to hide mistakes. The FAA has said the new system will allow it to more fairly police and monitor mistakes.

Bloch's probe was the second his office has conducted into how the FAA tracks controller errors in the Dallas region.

In 2005, the office referred the incidents to the Transportation Department's inspector general office, which later reported that the FAA had engaged in a seven-year practice of improperly investigating and underreporting operational errors.

The problems that led to the initial probe were brought to the attention of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel by Anne Whiteman, a controller in Dallas. The latest investigation started in February, when Whiteman again began providing information about managers covering up mistakes, this time by blaming the mistakes on pilots, investigators said.

She was joined in her accusations by another FAA employee, who wished to remain anonymous, Bloch said.

Bloch's investigation mostly focused on errors made by controllers in the tower of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, one of the nation's busiest hubs, and at a facility that handles the flow of air traffic into and out of the area's airports, the report showed.

Bloch's report did not cite statistics or a comprehensive analysis of controller or pilot errors. It instead relied on anecdotal descriptions of incidents, which were provided by Whiteman and verified by investigators who reviewed air traffic tapes and radar data.

None of the mistakes resulted in crashes. The most recent fatal crash of a commercial jetliner in the United States was in August.

In an interview, however, Bloch said his findings were supported by a surge in the number of pilot errors in the Dallas area. They leapt from 10 during the first six months of last year to about 100 in the first six months this year, he said.

Bloch said pilots were blamed for mistakes because there was little follow-up after the reports were made. Even if an incident was later determined to have been caused by controller error, the original report was not amended and statistics were not fixed, Bloch said.

"The matter is simply dropped without further inquiry," the report states.

One incident cited in the report involved a regional jet getting too close to a larger Boeing 757 after the regional jet's pilots had to abort a landing. The report concluded that there had been a "significant" controller error in the incident but that it was classified as a pilot mistake.

Another incident occurred when a pilot of a single-engine Piper plane got too close to a Southwest Boeing 737 headed to Love Field in Dallas. The report concluded that the controller allowed the planes to get too close, but the mistake was blamed on the Piper pilot.

The president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, Patrick Forrey, said controllers did not participate in any coverup of statistics and records, and instead put the blame on managers. He said controllers are under pressure to keep up traffic levels even as staffing has dropped. He added that the number of controllers at the center in Dallas that controls planes heading to and from the area's airports has dropped to 68 from 114 a few years ago.

"I think this is happening in other places," Forrey said, referring to the reclassification of errors. "But I can't prove it."

The Airline Pilots Association, which represents many pilots who fly in and out of the Dallas area, declined to comment on the report.

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