On May 8, 2012, Carolyn N. Lerner, of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, sent a scathing letter to President Barack Obama regarding seven recent whistleblower disclosures of significant safety lapses at commercial aviation facilities in the United States. While the whistleblower disclosures were noteworthy because of their proximity in time, the serious safety concerns raised, and the recurring nature of the problems they raised at the FAA, the real problem, Ms. Lerner pointed out, was the insufficient and untimely responses by the FAA, which “suggests deficiencies in the FAA’s oversight function.”
The OSC pointed out that:
- FAA has one of the highest rates of whistleblower filings per employee of any executive branch agency. OSC received a total of 178 FAA disclosures from fiscal year 2007 to the present, 87 related to aviation safety.
- The disclosures have merit: fifty percent of the 87 public safety related disclosures met our threshold for referring the disclosure to DOT for investigation. This compares with OSC’s overall referral rate of five percent for other government agencies.
- All but five of the OSC public safety referrals – 89 percent – were ultimately substantiated or partially substantiated by DOT in its subsequent investigations.
- In many cases, even where DOT has substantiated the allegations, OSC has found the agency’s reports unreasonable because of delays or the lack of appropriate or timely corrective action.
The letter outlined seven specific incidents in which the FAA and the DOT failed to follow through with whistleblower complaints, even after investigation by the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General, which has been very critical of the FAA’s performance with respect to aviation safety. These incidents include:
- Emergency service helicopters used by first responders nationwide were incorrectly retrofitted for night vision goggles, potentially posing a threat to pilots’ ability to read instruments;
- Air traffic controllers in the greater New York airspace slept in the control room, left their shifts early, used personal electronic devices while on the job, and used dangerously imprecise language when communicating with pilots, resulting in a near-crash;
- Aircraft were cleared to depart New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport with inadequate separation from heavy jet aircraft on final approach to Newark Liberty International Airport;
- Delta’s inspection and maintenance programs for fuel tank and electrical wiring interconnection systems were not in compliance with airworthiness directives and federal regulations;
- Unauthorized aircraft were frequently found in the U.S. airspace near San Juan, Puerto Rico;
- Inconsistent rules for operations on parallel runways result in operational errors and deviations because controllers at Detroit Metropolitan Airport (DTW) are unable simultaneously observe rules for missed approaches while maintaining appropriate separation from parallel runways; and
- Faulty wind instruments are being relied upon at DTW, among other concerns.
The OSC concluded that all of these disclosures were substantiated, yet the FAA did not take adequate steps to ameliorate the concerns. Particularly eye-opening was the OSC’s conclusion in the letter that
These disclosures paint a picture of an agency with insufficient responsiveness given its critical public safety mission. Although the United States’ aviation system is the safest in the world, the public properly expects zero tolerance for unnecessary risks. Preventive measures could be far more effective if the Department of Transportation listened to its own employees’ alarm bells, and was more prompt in its corrective actions after those alarms were sounded.
The FAA is being increasingly painted as an agency that is failing in its stated mission to “to provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world.” In counterpoint to that mission statement is a history of failure:
- Failing to give credence to whistleblower complaints;
- Giving into other governmental entities to detriment of aviation safety;
- Failing to institute NTSB recommended changes; and
- Failing to provide training guidelines for the proper training of pilots.
The OSC’s statement that the U.S.’s aviation system is the safest in the world is reflection of the efforts of the hard work and dedication of most of the FAA’s employees. However, if the agency does not listen to them and does not timely follow their suggestions to make the agency more efficient and safer, and, instead, allows politics to dictate and infect its processes, the U.S. aviation system probably will not remain the world’s safest.
May 17, 2012
FAA Responds –
FAA Acting Administrator Michael Huerta says that whistleblower responses are “improving.” In an interview after a speech on May 15, 2012, Huerta told reporters that since the creation of special office, Office of Audit and Evaluation, to respond to whistleblower complaints in 2009 “we’ve made tremendous strides in responding to investigations that get referred to us.” That the agency would need to establish a “special office” to respond to whistleblower complaints is compelling evidence of the extent of the problem.