WASHINGTON - Tthe U.S. Office of Special Counsel, the agency responsible for protecting government whistle-blowers, says it receives a disproportionately high number of tips from employees of the Federal Aviation Administration. In a letter sent to the White House and Congress today, the OSC highlighted seven individual cases to illustrate what it said was an "ongoing problem" of inadequate responses from the FAA and its parent authority, the Department of Transportation.
At a news conference, the attorney who drafted the report called it a "snapshot" of issues plaguing the organization charged with regulating American airspace.
"The FAA's failure to take its own employees' safety concerns seriously, and respond to them promptly, is a flaw in its otherwise stellar credentials," said special counsel Carolyn Lerner.
Lerner said after it was presented with the seven cases over a two month period - an unusually elevated number - it prompted the organization to review FAA records as far back as fiscal year 2007. On average the OSC handles only 25 to 30 cases a year across the entire federal government.
Typically, the OSC reports on a case by case basis to lawmakers. But in the letter, Lerner wrote the "proximity in time, the serious safety issues raised and the recurring nature of the problems" prompted the watchdog organization to consolidate the seven cases into a single filing. The move suggests a backlog of whistle-blower complaints that would be impractical to address individually.
"This does not seem to be an aberration," she said. "What it showed us is that there has been a steady stream" of filings from the FAA.
According the OSC, 178 FAA disclosures had been referred to the office since 2007, with 87 related to aviation safety. Of those, 44, or roughly half, were deemed to warrant further investigation and referred back to the Department of Transportation . In contrast, the OSC said that on average only 5 percent of employee complaints across the entire federal government contained enough merit to proceed further.
"The FAA numbers are extraordinarily high," says counsel spokeswoman Anne O'Hanlon, "Probably it's the highest agency."
The Department of Transportation eventually substantiated the claims of all but five of the 44 investigations, but even then the OSC alleged that the agency dragged its heels on corrective action. Lerner said in six of the seven complaints the whistle-blower had to repeatedly alert the department that OSC was taking too long.
The complaints themselves represent a wide swath of safety problems:
In one, an aviation safety inspector disclosed that night vision modifications to hundreds of emergency medical helicopters made flight instrumentation potentially difficult to read. The issue continued to pose a hazard to some pilots in both day and night lighting conditions, although the FAA had initiated a plan to correct the problem.
For another example, air traffic controllers at Detroit Metro Airport alleged that conflicting tarmac guidelines were confusing controllers into regularly directing planes on takeoff to come too close to planes aborting a landing. Lerner demonstrated the claim with a flight recording from Christmas Day 2009 showing a Northwest Airlines jet that came within dangerous proximity to an American Eagle regional jet in flight.
The letter also demonstrated that the professional conduct of some air traffic controllers continued to be a concern. Evan Seeley, an air traffic controller formerly stationed in Long Island, N.Y., told the OSC that careless and casual communication with pilots had caused at least one serious error with aircraft that could have resulted in a midair collision. Seeley's testimony also brought back attention to controllers sleeping on the job, playing video games, watching movies and other distracting behavior in the control room.
Of the eight whistle-blowers involved in the letter's filings, seven had originally approached the FAA with their concerns - sometimes repeatedly - before going to the independent OSC. One of the whistle-blowers faced retaliatory action from the employer for raising an issue.
In all seven instances, the FAA or Department of Transportation eventually took corrective action to address the findings, but Lerner maintained that slow responses could be evidence of a systemic problem.
Each of the cases "paints a picture of an agency with insufficient responsiveness given its critical public safety mission," she said.
Lerner, however, pointed out that the sheer amount of whistle-blowers did not inherently denote a public safety risk, and suggested it might have to do more with the high quality of information coming from FAA employees, compared with that from other government agencies.
"These are safety professionals," she said. "They are the people on the ground. They are the ones who know when there are problems. And so I think it probably is tough for them to sleep at night when they're aware of a problem and they see it not being fixed."
The counsel stressed that her office's findings "are not unique to one administration," with several complaints originating during the presidency of George W. Bush. One of the seven examples provided in the letter began with an incident as far back as 2005. The counsel said she could not speculate on how FAA's problems could stretch across the political appointments of multiple administrations.
The OSC notified Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood this morning of its findings. In a written statement, the Department of Transportation responded to the report by saying it has been addressing cases since their original referral in 2010. According to the agency, its inspector general had worked to "promptly review, investigate and take aggressive action where necessary to ensure our high safety standards were met."
"We are confident that America's flying public is safe," it reads, "thanks in part to changes that DOT and FAA have already made in response to these concerns and other whistle-blower disclosures. DOT is committed to continuing to review its policies and practices to implement improvements where necessary."
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