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"Special counsel warns White House on FAA issues"
Tuesday, May 8, 2012
Special counsel warns White House on FAA issues
By Ashley Halsey III
The Washington (DC) Post
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
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
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
"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
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.
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
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