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.
"At my facility, a culture of fear exists because of what they have done to me," said Nesbitt, whose complaint was filed in October but helped form the basis of the investigators' request to the FAA to retain records. "It has made my life a wreck."
FAA spokeswoman Lynn Tierney said she could not address the individual allegations by whistle-blowers that have not been made public, yet. But she added that workplace retaliation is an "impediment to a safety culture."
"We strive to create a professional, mission critical atmosphere where people work together and resolve issues," Tierney wrote in an e-mail, adding that the allegations by whistle-blowers "are troubling."
Another FAA employee, Mike Cole, said he filed a whistle-blower complaint because his bosses did not take his safety concerns seriously and then punished him when he reported his worries over an FAA safety hot line.
Cole was worried, he said, about a procedure in which controllers in the tower at an airport in Juneau, Alaska, cleared pilots to take off and then closed their facility for the night. Cole worked in a flight service station that issues weather briefings and files flight plans for pilots, and he was concerned that planes might take off later than scheduled, and their pilots would not know whether other aircraft were heading to the airport. Such an error could result in a collision, he said.
"Juneau Air Traffic Control Tower is playing dodge ball" with the airlines, Cole said.
Several times, Cole said, he stopped pilots from taking off because he learned another plane was about to land. He reported the problems to his bosses but did not get anywhere with it, he said. In December, he filed a complaint with the FAA's safety hot line service.
Shortly after, his boss yelled at him, Cole said, and he was decertified for alleged mental health reasons. In a report explaining his decision to rescind Cole's medical clearance to work, his boss complained that the flight service worker "has become paralyzed by overwhelming paranoia and delusion in which he sees nothing but aviation disaster."
His doctors, however, found no evidence of serious mental disorders and recommended that Cole return to duty. "From a psychiatric point of view, I see no reason why Mr. Cole is not able to resume work," one doctor wrote in a report submitted to the FAA in March.
"I kept bringing up these problems, and they kept saying we didn't have any problems," said Cole, who went back to work the same month.
Farrington, a former FAA inspector in Orlando who oversaw cabin safety at AirTran Airways, said she waited four years to make her allegations of misconduct and retaliation because she thought no one would care.
The former inspector alleges that she raised issues with her bosses about poor training of flight attendants at AirTran and problems related to replica fuselages used to teach flight crews how to exit the back of a Boeing 717 in an emergency. AirTran was using a mock-up of the tail section of a DC-9, not a Boeing 717 replica, to teach flight attendants how to deploy an emergency slide to exit the plane. The two planes are similar, but the tail sections are slightly different. In 2003, the carrier had far more 717s than DC-9s, company records show, and the carrier was aggressively moving to retire its remaining gas-guzzling DC-9s.
In March 2003, an AirTran 717 made an emergency landing at La Guardia Airport in New York. A flight attendant became confused during the evacuation and could not tell whether the emergency slide in the plane's tail had deployed, according to reports by the NTSB. She had to guide passengers to other exits, and one passenger broke an ankle during the evacuation.
"I have come to realize with this experience that the mock-up we use in training cannot fully equip a flight attendant to the realities of a real-life evacuation," the attendant told investigators, according to an NTSB report.
Farrington told NTSB investigators that she had raised concerns about the training and mock-up with her supervisors over the years, she said in an interview.
After an NTSB investigator interviewed her, Farrington said, she soon found herself in trouble with her bosses. She got extra supervision and her bosses began to nitpick her work, she said. The stress became so great that she went on medical leave and then was released from employment because her bosses said she not available to work, she said.
"By disclosing that information, I had no idea I was digging a deeper and deeper hole for myself," she said
Under pressure from the NTSB, AirTran revised its training and bought a mock-up of a 717, records show.
One FAA supervisor told NTSB investigators that Farrington never raised issues about the mock-up problems with him but did mention other concerns about lesson plans and instruction, according to a transcript of the interview.
AirTran officials say Farrington never told them the mock-ups could cause confusion or about other training problems.
Steve Kolski, the carrier's executive vice president for operations, in an interview read excerpts from a scathing letter that he wrote to FAA officials seeking Farrington's removal from her oversight job. He did not reveal the date of the letter, but an AirTran spokeswoman said it was written after the La Guardia incident. Kolski said Farrington should not be considered a whistle-blower.
"She watched our training for over three years and never said anything until [the NTSB] pointed the finger at her," he said in an interview. "It's revisionist history."