The Perilous Path of FAA Whistle-Blowers Dozens of men and women have stepped forward this year to report safety issues. But some say taking on the role of whistle-blower is "excruciating" and "disturbing" — and that it can ruin a career.
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The Perilous Path of FAA Whistle-Blowers

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The Perilous Path of FAA Whistle-Blowers

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

2008 is shaping up to be the year of the whistleblower at the Federal Aviation Administration. So far 32 men and women have come forward. They're worried that our skies aren't as safe as they could be. The FAA saw just 11 whistleblowers in all of last year. The agency has responded with new systems for reporting safety issues. It also says - finding a silver lining - that this situation proves it has dedicated workers who put public safety first.

As NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports, being a whistleblower can ruin a career.

WADE GOODWYN: Peter Nesbitt was a veteran controller with 17 years of experience when he was transferred from Austin, Texas to the control tower at Memphis International Airport. Northwest Airlines and FedEx use Memphis as a base of operations, and Nesbitt liked working the night shift in particular. There was just one thing: during those times when the airport got a big push of inbound traffic, controllers were instructed to use all four runways for landing. And Nesbitt thought this was an invitation to disaster.

Mr. PETER NESBITT (Controller): When I saw the operation, I asked some of my peers and I asked some of the supervisors, hey, what's up with this procedure? This looks kind of scary.

GOODWYN: Imagine three parallel runways next to each other like rows of corn. Now, the fourth runway at Memphis International runs across the end. If all the landings go well, it's no problem. But if the plane landing on the crossing runway 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 on approach. And this happens occasionally at Memphis. In fact, last year a Northwest Air DC-9 almost collided in midair with a commuter plane while Peter Nesbitt watched from the control tower.

Mr. NESBITT: I observed a Saab-Fairchild, which is a twin engine turbo prop, on approach to land on Runway 27.

GOODWYN: That's the crossing runway.

Mr. NESBITT: At about that same time there was a DC-9, a turbo jet, that was on approach to land on Runway 18 Left.

GOODWYN: That runway is perpendicular.

MR. NESBITT: As the Saab-Fairchild approached the runway, the pilot informed the local controller that he was going around due to an unsafe gear indication.

GOODWYN: As the jet and the commuter plane converged, the controller handling the landing began to plead with the turbo-prop pilot to stay low, stay low, stay low.

Mr. NESBITT: The Saab-Fairchild kind of pushed the nose over and, you know, stayed low as he could to the runway and flew down the length of Runway 27.

GOODWYN: At the same time, the pilot flying the Northwest DC-9 jammed his throttles forward, pulled back the stick and clawed for the sky. The commuter plane ended up flying right underneath him, and it was close.

Mr. NESBITT: I estimate that it was probably, you know, 800 feet or less vertical separation. That's the closest we had seen two airplanes come together in - at least in my career and I believe probably the other controller's career as well.

GOODWYN: Nesbitt says managers 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 both Memphis Airport officials and FedEx executives publicly supported having the four runways landing during peak operations. But now Nesbitt was too frightened to let it go.

Mr. NESBITT: I went straight downstairs and I filled out a NASA aviation safety reporting report and submitted it to NASA that night. After that I contacted the National Transportation Safety Board and I sent them an email expressing concerns about the Runway 27 operation also.

GOODWYN: From the beginning, Peter Nesbitt was 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 again busted them. That's according to FAA documents. Nesbitt says then the retaliation against him was quick and intense. Over the last year, managers in Memphis have decertified the whistleblower for alleged performance issues.

Mr. NESBITT: It's been excruciating. It's been very disturbing. I feel like I have tried to do the right thing. I've tried to enhance safety, and I feel that I've paid the price for it.

GOODWYN: And Nesbitt is not alone. Two Dallas-based FAA aircraft inspectors went before the House Transportation Committee in April and gave blistering testimony about how the FAA had abandoned its own aircraft inspection protocols.

Unidentified Man: I'd like to thank all of you for coming today, to help us honor Bobby Boutris and Doug Peters for their integrity and their brave acts on behalf of the American public.

GOODWYN: At a ceremony yesterday in Washington, D.C., Bobby Boutris and Doug Peters were honored by the Office of Special Counsel for their service to the country. While accepting his public servant award, inspector Boutris described the retaliation he endured.

Mr. CHARALAMBE BOUTRIS (Former FAA Safety Inspector): When I came forward, the next steps was to put me under investigation for six months, take my inspector duties away, and tell me I had stay in my cube and look at the four walls.

GOODWYN: FAA officials refused to comment specifically about the allegations of retaliation by any particular whistleblower. But the agency says in the last few weeks it has put in place new procedures designed to facilitate reports by controllers and inspectors of unsafe conditions.

GOODWYN: FAA spokesperson Diane Spitaliere says they've replaced some of the FAA managers at Dallas-Fort Worth International too.

Ms. DIANE SPITALIERE (FAA): We brought in some experienced managers from other facilities in different parts of the country and they have been working very closely with the whistleblowers to make sure their concerns are heard and that they're comfortable in their operating environment.

GOODWYN: But ask Anne Whiteman, a controller who was the first to go public about problems inside the tower at DFW a decade ago, and she will tell you it's no fun being an FAA whistleblower.

Ms. ANNE WHITEMAN (Air Traffic Controller): Well, they did things blatant. They tried to run me off the road. A guy had knocked me down. He used to knock me down at work all the time. He'd walk by - if nobody was looking, he'd knock me down.

GOODWYN: The physical abuse was witnessed and documented by the FAA. Whiteman blew the whistle on managers at DFW for covering up incidents involving aircraft flying too close to one another. Managers in the DFW tower 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 never stops. After 10 years, she's worn down.

Ms. WHITEMAN: I used to say I would do it again; not so sure. 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 old 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 I don't think I would have ever had.

GOODWYN: Whiteman's account and supporting testimony by witnesses was documented by the federal government. For their part, managers at DFW disputed the door was locked. To be an FAA whistleblower is to be an outcast and it takes certain qualities of character to take up the service. But the dangers they eventually report weigh heavy on their conscience; it is their fear of the soul-crushing guilt they would suffer if the worst actually were to happen and they'd done nothing to stop it. It is a bad hand to be dealt: go public, don't go public. It's a lose-lose proposition.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

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