Winging It at the FAA

Saturday, May 3, 2008

WHAT GIVES with the Federal Aviation Administration? A month ago, the flying public learned that aircraft inspectors for the agency were in cahoots with the airlines and letting jets get off the ground without proper equipment checks. Then came a report from the inspector general of the Transportation Department to the Office of Special Counsel that reveals a coverup of errors by air traffic controllers.

Thanks to whistle-blower Anne Whiteman, we now know that the Dallas-Fort Worth Terminal Approach Control (TRACON) decided to cover up mistakes made by its personnel by pinning the blame on pilots. According to the FAA, between November 2005 and July 2007, TRACON managers wrongly reported 62 air traffic "events" as "pilot deviation or non-events." Instead, the agency says, there were 52 "operational errors" and 10 "operational deviations." We're talking about letting planes fly too close to each other and other potentially dangerous mistakes. The problem with fake reports, aside from dishonesty, is that they corrupt the FAA's system of gathering timely and accurate information to spot trends, which allows the agency to anticipate trouble and prevent accidents. What incentive might there be for someone to put so many at risk? Could it be the agency-wide bonus system that rewards workers for reduced operational errors? Maybe the final report from the Office of Special Council, expected to be completed by late this month, will shed some light on that.

Now, here's the really scary part: This isn't the first time this has happened at Dallas-Fort Worth. Ms. Whiteman blew the whistle on this crew once before, in 2004. That coverup spanned seven years. Disciplinary actions were taken. Directives were issued. Still, nothing changed. The FAA swears that the Dallas-Fort Worth TRACON coverup-and-do-nothing era is over. The facility manager and the assistant manager were removed. Unannounced audits by the Air Traffic Safety Oversight organization have begun. And implementation of a computer system that automatically catches the errors of controllers has been accelerated. All good moves. But the FAA will understand if the public doesn't trust a word it says.

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