Texas Coverup Is Latest FAA Black Eye

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 25, 2008

Federal Aviation Administration managers covered up mistakes by air traffic controllers at a Texas facility, making it more difficult for authorities to detect safety hazards in some of the nation's busiest airspace, FAA officials disclosed yesterday.

In revealing the results of a government watchdog investigation, the FAA was also forced to admit that it failed to adequately address similar allegations raised publicly several years ago.

The disclosures come as the FAA has been battered in recent weeks for lax oversight of airline maintenance programs and their compliance with safety mandates. Embarrassed by those revelations, the FAA launched a crackdown on air carriers, resulting in massive groundings of planes and flight cancellations as maintenance workers scrambled to look for potential flaws.

The Texas investigation centered on how supervisors misreported errors at a control center that handles thousands of airplanes arriving and departing daily from airports in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

The Transportation Department's inspector general found that managers at the facility were reclassifying errors by controllers as mistakes made by pilots, according to FAA officials. While disclosing the results of the probe, the FAA declined to release the report itself. The inspector general also declined to release the documents.

"The report is disturbing," FAA Acting Administrator Robert Sturgell said in a hasty statement before leaving a news conference without taking any questions. "A higher standard is expected of us."

The errors included instances in which controllers allowed aircraft to get too close to each other and others in which they gave pilots improper or late instructions, FAA officials said. None resulted in crashes, and no further details were provided about the incidents.

FAA officials said the inspector general found that managers misclassified 62 incidents as pilot errors or "non-events" during a 20-month period ending in July 2007. About 25 percent of errors at the facility were found to have been misclassified, FAA officials said.

As laid out by FAA officials, the inspector general's probe confirms the general thrust of allegations made by another government investigator, U.S. Special Counsel Scott Bloch, in a July report. Bloch, who investigates complaints by federal whistleblowers, said at the time that FAA managers reclassified errors to avoid criticism from their bosses and to enhance their chances of receiving monetary performance bonuses, which are based partly on error rates.

FAA officials yesterday did not discuss potential motives for the misreporting but said they were re-evaluating their bonus system. They also said the report revealed serious problems because such data manipulation could make it difficult to discover trends that could be addressed to prevent accidents.

"If you are going to chase risk in the system, you have to chase it accurately," said Hank Krakowski, chief operating officer of the FAA's air traffic management organization.

Krakowski and other FAA officials said they do not believe similar reporting problems exist at other facilities. The inspector general found that only 3 percent of reports were misclassified in a national sample of such data, FAA officials said.

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