FAA Accused of Ignoring Safety Warnings

The Federal Aviation Administration recently has come under fire for letting airlines skip required inspections. Now, it's cracking down. But watchdogs and government investigators say the problem goes beyond inspections. They say the FAA has also ignored safety violations reported by air traffic controllers. And, they say, whistleblowers who come forward get punished.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

More trouble looms for the Federal Aviation Administration. It's already fielded loud criticism from missed safety inspections. And now, there are more allegations. This time, the people sounding the alarm are air traffic controllers.

They say supervisors have been hiding mistakes that could put passengers at risk. Government investigators have been looking into these complaints. They're expected to release their findings later this week.

As NPR's Kathleen Schalch reports, the FAA is now admitting these problems occurred.

KATHLEEN SCHALCH: For years, veteran air traffic controller Anne Whiteman was alarmed by what was going on at the Dallas Forth Worth airport.

BLOCK: For lack of a better term, everything was helter-skelter.

BLOCK: She says too often, planes were veering too close together, and no one was taking these operational errors seriously. In fact, Whiteman says, they were covering them up. She reported it, and she says colleagues and supervisors acted decisively against her. She says they physically harassed and threatened her. She says one air traffic controller repeatedly hit her; another would bump into her and knock her down.

BLOCK: He did it in front of a supervisor one day, and I felt so ridiculous.

SCHALCH: She says neither one of then got reprimanded.

BLOCK: I was locked in an office, and I was removed. I received a harsher reprimand than anyone.

SCHALCH: In 2004, Whiteman contacted government investigators. They verified that she was right. There had been a seven-year cover-up.

Scott Bloch runs the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal agency that probes whistleblower complaints and protects the whistleblowers. He says the FAA claimed it had dealt with the situation.

BLOCK: FAA assured everyone, including the inspector general and the Office of Special Counsel, that they had complied with the directives and they had cleaned up the problem.

SCHALCH: But Bloch says they hadn't.

BLOCK: Things hadn't changed at all. They only got worse.

SCHALCH: Last year, Anne Whiteman and two other whistleblowers at Dallas Fort Worth came forward again. They told Bloch the FAA had simply shifted its strategy.

BLOCK: And we substantiated their allegations that this cover-up had never terminated, but rather had simply morphed into a different kind of cover-up.

SCHALCH: Officials were now reporting more mistakes. But rather than blaming air traffic controllers, they were blaming the pilots. Anne Whiteman says it was obvious. She had tracked pilot errors for over a decade.

BLOCK: We had maybe an average of 10 or 12 pilot deviations a year. I think last year, they had 200.

SCHALCH: Special Counsel Scott Bloch says he's seen the same pattern at the FAA before.

BLOCK: As soon as the coast is clear, we have found, they will find a way to continue doing what they were doing, maybe even do it worse.

SCHALCH: Bloch told the Department of Transportation's inspector general to launch a new probe. The results of that investigation are due out later this week. The FAA says it won't comment on the specifics of the case until that report's released. But the agency's chief spokesperson, Lynn Tierney, told NPR the FAA has looked into the new allegations and confirmed them.

BLOCK: There were mistakes that were recorded improperly. What I can tell you is that that situation has been rectified. There have been personnel changes.

SCHALCH: Because these people were implicated in the reclassifying of these errors.

BLOCK: Yes.

SCHALCH: And yes, she says, misclassifying incidents this way can pose a safety risk. Because when planes get too close together, the FAA needs to know why.

BLOCK: And you want to be able to stop the trend before it gets more serious, and that's why the precise recording of every incident is imperative.

SCHALCH: Tierney says the FAA is putting programs in place to track errors more closely and to make sure nothing like this ever happens again anywhere in the country. She says she cannot comment on the way whistleblower Anne Whiteman was treated.

BLOCK: But what I can say is that under no circumstances should anyone be ostracized for stating the belief that they feel that safety is compromised.

SCHALCH: Still, some air traffic controllers say they're afraid to come forward. The Office of Special Counsel is investigating more cases of possible retribution against FAA whistleblowers. One is an air traffic controller in Memphis.

Kathleen Schalch, NPR News, Washington.

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