Air traffic controllers in New York sleeping, playing video games and going home early. Planes bound for one airport hitting turbulence from big jets headed to another airport. Unauthorized planes entering U.S. airspace. Bad instruments and inconsistent rules jumbling efforts to land planes at busy airports.
Those safety concerns were among seven outlined by U.S. Special Counsel Carolyn N. Lerner in a letter Tuesday to the White House that criticized the Federal Aviation Administration for being slow to respond to problems that could put airline passengers at risk.
While the letter focused on seven specific cases, Lerner said they reflect a pattern of behavior by an agency that is slow to respond to criticism.
“This snapshot we’re looking at with these seven cases is not unusual, given what we’ve seen over the last 51 / 2 years,” Lerner said at a news conference Tuesday. “I think the facts speak for themselves. These are serious allegations.”
The criticism comes during the safest period in U.S. aviation history. There are more than 67 million domestic flights each year, and just one commercial flight has crashed in more than three years, the Colgan Air accident that killed 50 people near Buffalo in February 2009.
The Transportation Department issued a statement Tuesday in response to the counsel’s letter.
“We are confident that America’s flying public is safe — thanks in part to changes that DOT and FAA have already made in response to these concerns and other whistleblower disclosures,” the statement said. “DOT has been working with the Office of Special Counsel on these seven cases since the original referral in February 2010. At the same time we were responding to OSC, DOT worked with our Inspector General to promptly review, investigate and take aggressive action where necessary to ensure our high safety standards were met.”
The special counsel’s office investigates the claims of government whistleblowers, and Lerner said the FAA has one of the highest rates on whistleblower disclosures in the federal government.
She said her investigators found that half of the 87 safety issues raised by whistleblowers were serious enough to be sent to the FAA for a response.
“The FAA frequently delays taking necessary steps to address problems after they have been identified and even after the allegations are confirmed through an investigation,” Lerner said, pointing out that agencies are required by law to respond to her office within 60 days.
“One of the things that concerned me is that there were so many requests for extensions,” Lerner said. “It was taking close to a year in many cases to get findings back from the agency. There did not seem to be the level of urgency that we thought many of these claims deserved.”
The FAA has faced criticism and turmoil in recent years, with its defenders saying the agency moves deliberately to achieve safety goals despite pressure from the aviation industry, Congress and traveling public to expedite new programs.
Critics portray it as a lethargic bureaucracy and cite a failure to move more swiftly in developing a revolutionary $40 billion system that will replace the current air traffic management system.
The FAA also faced several controversies. The most public of them were incidents last year in which air traffic controllers were caught sleeping on the job. Another was a mistake by a controller who allowed first lady Michelle Obama’s plane to come too close to a military plane on approach to Andrews Air Force Base.
The same controller was responsible earlier for a near-collision near Washington involving a plane carrying Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.).
Last month, after reports that there had been a significant increase in the number of mistakes by controllers nationwide, two key government watchdog agencies questioned the accuracy of the FAA’s record-keeping on potentially disastrous close calls between planes on the runway and in flight.
Lerner said the whistleblowers who brought the seven cases to her attention first made unsuccessful efforts to get FAA leadership to address them.
They came from Rand Foster, an aviation safety inspector in Washington state, who said the night vision imaging system installed in emergency helicopters didn’t function properly.
Evan Seeley, a controller in New York, said controllers were sleeping, using personal laptops, playing video games and watching movies while on duty.
Dean Iacopelli, a controller in another New York facility, said that to increase air traffic capacity, planes leaving Teterboro Regional Airport in New Jersey were being allowed to fly directly below the potentially dangerous turbulence caused by large jets leaving the Newark airport.
Two FAA safety inspectors, Mark Lund and Daniel Mirau, said that Delta Airlines was certifying airplanes without ensuring compliance with regulations on fuel tanks and electrical wiring systems.
A controller in Puerto Rico, Edgar Diaz, said that unauthorized aircraft for foreign islands were deviating into U.S. airspace.
A pair of controllers at Detroit’s airport, Brian Gault and Vincent Sugent, were the whistleblowers in cases that Lerner cited in the White House letter. They said two FAA rules governing the way planes land on parallel runways were in direct conflict, allowing planes to draw dangerously close. Sugent also said faulty wind instruments at the airport resulted in what Lerner described as “an unsafe and untenable situation for the flying public.”