More Step Up To Complain About FAA

FAA worker Mike Cole's warnings about safety were called
FAA worker Mike Cole's warnings about safety were called "paranoia."
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By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 31, 2008

Kim Farrington says she was only doing her job as a Federal Aviation Administration inspector when she raised concerns about problems involving an airline's training program. But her bosses, who she thought were too cozy with the carrier, punished her for her warnings, she said.

Her workplace became unbearable, and Farrington said she was essentially fired in 2004.

Last month, Farrington came forward as a whistle-blower, filing a complaint about her treatment with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel after she read news reports about how FAA inspectors blew the whistle last year on lax oversight of Southwest Airlines. She was not alone. Like Farrington, other former and current FAA employees have filed complaints about how the agency treated them and responded to their safety concerns.

The special counsel has received complaints from at least six other FAA whistle-blowers in the weeks since Congress held hearings into the Southwest debacle, according to some of the whistle-blowers and sources familiar with the investigations.

Those complaints and several others received in the past year formed the basis of a letter sent to top FAA officials several weeks ago, asking the agency to retain a massive number of documents, e-mails and other records at its offices across the country to aid the investigations.

Congressional staff members have received hundreds of other tips from whistle-blowers about the FAA, according to Jim Berard, a spokesman for the House Transportation Committee, which held a high-profile hearing in early April into the Southwest and FAA lapses. A few of those complaints have been referred to the Transportation Department's inspector general. Others are being examined by investigators on the Transportation Committee, Berard said.

The complaints suggest that the FAA will continue to face tough questions in coming months.

But investigators acknowledge that the cases may not be as clear-cut as those raised by FAA inspectors who reported lapses in how the agency oversaw Southwest Airlines. The FAA last year improperly allowed Southwest to keep flying jets in need of key safety checks, a decision that top FAA officials have acknowledged was a big mistake.

"Whistle-blower disclosures and retaliation can be very difficult to bring home," said Jim Mitchell, a spokesman for the special counsel's office. "It's vital that we get hold of evidence beyond what we are getting from the whistle-blower."

Mitchell declined to comment on the cases the special counsel's office is pursuing. However, sources familiar with the probes and interviews with FAA employees reveal a wide range of complaints and allegations of potential safety lapses and unfair treatment in recent years.

Peter Nesbitt, an air traffic controller at Memphis International Airport, said he filed a whistle-blower complaint over the way he was treated after he made repeated disclosures last year about safety problems tied to what he thought was a dangerous approach pattern for planes. He sent letters expressing his concerns to his congressman, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and top FAA safety officials, he said.

Some of the issues were corrected, Nesbitt said. But the controller, who has made disclosures of other alleged safety issues, said he soon found himself under intense scrutiny at work and was punished for reasons he still does not understand. He is no longer allowed to control air traffic, he said.

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