The Federal Aviation Administration worker whose error led to the June 9 evacuation of the U.S. Capitol before former president Ronald Reagan's funeral procession was a contract employee who had limited experience monitoring FAA radar displays, the air traffic controllers union said yesterday.
The union statement follows the disclosure last week that the FAA knew a plane carrying Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) had a broken identification transmitter and was in contact with the plane for at least 40 minutes, but failed to notify military and homeland security officials. Those officials, who saw only an unidentified intruder on their radar, ordered the aircraft intercepted and the Capitol Police ordered the evacuation, according to the preliminary finding by the Transportation Security Administration.
The plane's pilot had properly notified FAA controllers, but the agency failed to relay the data to a Washington air defense center in Herndon.
FAA officials said the contract worker, who was assigned to monitor a messaging network used by air defense officials, did not recognize that FAA radar display information identifying the Kentucky airplane as having a broken transmitter would not show up on air defense displays.
"The situation most likely would have been avoided had an air traffic controller or somebody with air traffic control experience" been in place, said James D. Davis, local president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association at an FAA facility in Vint Hill, Va.
Davis also said flight restrictions adopted last year to secure Washington region air space have doubled the workload in some cases for air controllers who handle air traffic to and from Washington, Baltimore and Richmond area airports.
"We believe the Washington Air Defense Identification Zone could work more efficiently given the proper resources and tools," Davis said. "It's not working as efficiently as it should now."
The contract employee, who works for Crown Consulting Inc. of Washington, is no longer assigned to the regional FAA facility, federal officials said
FAA spokesman Greg Martin said Davis's claims are "wholly without merit." He said that the system worked because the plane was intercepted without injury and that FAA has determined there is no shortage of controllers at the facility.
Martin acknowledged that other people who worked in the contractor's position are former air traffic controllers. He said the contract worker had sufficient experience in reviewing radar operations in previous FAA posts, but made a mistake.
"The fact of the matter is, the system has a human element," Martin said. "We work hard every day to be perfect. We still expect that in the unlikely event that a human error happened, that the system must respond and default to the highest level of security, which it did."
The House Select Committee on Homeland Security and at least four other committees are calling for a congressional investigation into the government's ability to respond to an airborne terrorist attack against the capital region.
The commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks last week cited communication breakdowns between FAA and military officials as a key failure on the day of the terrorist strike.