This is shaping up to be the year of the whistle-blower at the Federal Aviation Administration.
So far, 32 men and women have stepped forward with concerns about safety issues — nearly triple the number for all of 2007.
The FAA has responded by implementing new systems for reporting safety issues, and it says the situation underscores that the agency has dedicated workers who put public safety first. But the agency also has been accused of looking the other way when supervisors retaliated against those who spoke out — potentially ruining a whistle-blower's career.
An Invitation to Disaster
Peter Nesbitt was a veteran controller with 17 years of experience when he transferred from Austin, Texas, to the control tower at Memphis International Airport in Tennessee. Both Northwest Airlines and FedEx use Memphis as a base of operations, and Nesbitt liked working the night shift.
But there was something that didn't sit right with him: During the times when the airport got a big push of inbound traffic, controllers were instructed to use all four runways for landing.
Nesbitt thought this was an invitation to disaster.
"When I saw the operation, I asked some of my peers and supervisors, 'Hey, what's up with this procedure, this looks kinda scary,' " Nesbitt says.
Imagine three parallel runways next to one another like rows of corn. The fourth runway at Memphis International runs across the end. If all the landings go as planned, there is no problem because the plane landing on the fourth runway is already on the ground as the other planes pass overhead on approach. But if the plane landing on the crossing runway has a problem and needs to execute what is called a "go around," then its flight path could take it directly into the flight path of the other planes.
This occasionally happens at Memphis. Last year, in fact, a Northwest Airlines DC-9 aircraft almost collided in midair with a commuter plane while Nesbitt watched from the control tower.
"I saw a twin turboprop on approach to land on runway 27 [the crossing runway]," Nesbitt says. "At the same time, there was a DC-9 on approach to the left runway. As the Saab-Fairchild approached the runway, the pilot informed the local controller that he was going around due to an unsafe gear indication."
As the jet and the commuter plane converged, the controller handling the landing began to plead with the turboprop pilot to "stay low, stay low, stay low." The Saab-Fairchild pushed the nose over and flew down the length of runway 27, says Nesbitt. At the same time, the pilot flying the DC-9 jammed his throttles forward, pulled back the stick and clawed for the sky. The commuter plane ended up flying right underneath him.
"I estimate that it was 800 feet or less," Nesbitt says. "It was the closest we had seen two airplanes come together in my career — and everyone else's, too."
Nesbitt says managers had always told the controllers at Memphis International that the airport had a special waiver from the FAA to land planes this way. When the controllers asked to see the waiver, Nesbitt says they were told it wasn't in Memphis: It was kept in Atlanta and they didn't need to worry about it. The truth was that both Memphis Airport officials and FedEx executives liked having the four runways landing planes at once during peak operations. But Nesbitt was too frightened to let it go.
"I went straight downstairs when I got a break, and I filled out a NASA aviation safety report, and submitted it to NASA that night," he says. "Then I contacted the National Transportation Safety Board, and sent them an e-mail about the runway."
From the beginning, Nesbitt worried about retaliation. And federal investigators quickly uncovered embarrassing information. Memphis International, in fact, did not have a waiver to conduct that controversial landing procedure, and the FAA ordered it stopped immediately.
But the desire to maintain the status quo was strong, and Memphis managers continued to land planes in the same operation until Nesbitt busted them to the FAA again, according to FAA documents.
The retaliation against him was quick and intense, Nesbitt says. Over the past year, managers in Memphis have decertified him for alleged performance issues.
"It's been excruciating," Nesbitt says. "It's been disturbing. I've tried to do the right thing and enhance safety, and I've paid the price."
To Be an Outcast
Nesbitt is not alone when it comes to a backlash.
Dallas-based FAA aircraft inspectors Charalambe "Bobby" Boutris and Douglas Peters blew the whistle on shoddy maintenance practices at Southwest Airlines. That led to the grounding of thousands of Southwest, American and other airlines' planes. Boutris and Peters went before the House Transportation Committee in April and gave blistering testimony about how the FAA had abandoned its own aircraft inspection protocols.
At a ceremony Wednesday in Washington, D.C., Boutris and Peters were honored by the Office of Special Counsel for their service to the country.
While accepting his public servant award, Boutris described the retaliation he encountered.
"When I came forward, the next step was to put me under investigation, take my inspector duties away, and tell me I had to stay in my cube and stare at the four walls for six months," Boutris says.
FAA officials refuse to comment specifically about the allegations of retaliation against any particular whistle-blower. But the agency has acknowledged it has a problem and says that in the past few weeks it has put in place new procedures designed to facilitate reports of unsafe conditions.
FAA spokesperson Diane Spitaliere says the agency has replaced some of the FAA managers at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport with "experienced managers from other facilities."
Anne Whiteman, a controller who was the first to go public about the problems inside the tower at DFW a decade ago, says it's no fun being an FAA whistle-blower.
"They did things blatant, they tried to run me off the road," Whiteman says. "A guy used to knock me down at work all the time. He'd walk by — if nobody was looking, he'd knock me down."
Whiteman blew the whistle on managers at DFW who were covering up incidents involving aircraft flying too close to one another. They retaliated by declaring her medically unfit for duty. While the top brass of the FAA in Washington now admits it's had an ongoing problem at DFW, Whiteman says that for her it doesn't matter, the retaliation in Dallas never stops. After 10 years, she's worn down.
"I used to say I would do it again; [now I'm] not so sure," Whiteman says, her voice shaking. "Twice now I've been removed from my job. The most recent instance, I was locked in the office. I'll never be the same 'ole Annie again. They've changed me in many ways. But I do have my pride. I do have a sense that I did the right thing, but I have a whole lot of sadness that I don't think I would have ever had."
Whiteman's account and supporting testimony by witnesses were documented by the federal government. Managers disputed the door was locked.
To be an FAA whistle-blower is to be an outcast. But the dangers they eventually report weigh heavily on their consciences. It is their fear of the soul-crushing guilt they would suffer if the worst actually were to happen — and they had done nothing to stop it.