FAA defends actions after air traffic allegations

Jul. 13--D/FW AIRPORT -- The Federal Aviation Administration defended itself Thursday against allegations by a special government investigator that its air traffic controllers and supervisors at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport are covering up mistakes and shifting the blame onto pilots.

"The Department of Transportation's Office of Inspector General routinely conducts air traffic facility audits and has visited the Dallas Tracon within the past six months," according to the FAA statement. "The Federal Aviation Administration also has a robust audit system in place to ensure that all air traffic controller errors are reported and are correctly classified in Dallas and at every other air traffic facility in the country."

Tracon stands for terminal radar approach control and is a windowless radar room at the base of a control tower. The FAA did not say in its statement whether it was referring to the radar room at D/FW or Dallas Love Field.

The FAA's statement, which was in response to a report by the independent federal Office of Special Council, goes on to describe several other ways the agency monitors air traffic controllers.

They include:

Random, unannounced audits of radar and air traffic voice data to detect unreported or misclassified errors.

A new reporting tool called the Traffic Analysis and Review Program. The automated system, being tested in three air traffic control facilities, was developed to find any "deviations of safety standards," the FAA said.

"The flying public can rest assured that the FAA thoroughly investigates every safety incident, whether it was the result of controller or pilot error, and closely tracks and addresses any pattern of errors," the statement concluded.

The allegations by two whistle-blowers that air traffic controllers at D/FW are covering up mistakes and shifting the blame to pilots surfaced publicly this week, after a special counsel outlined the accusations in a letter and report to Transportation Secretary Mary Peters.

In the letter, Special Counsel Scott Bloch recommended that Peters launch an investigation into the allegations and look into whether similar problems are occurring across the FAA system.

At a regularly scheduled monthly meeting Thursday, some D/FW board mem- bers expressed concern about how this makes the world's third-busiest airport look, even though airport management has no control over federal air traffic controllers.

"I want the flying public to have the confidence in this board that we fully and completely support the efforts to find out what these allegations are all about," Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief, a member of the board, said at the meeting. "I don't want there to be any doubt, that we're not just going to sit on our hands. I know it's not our direct responsibility, but indirectly it is. We're going to be who the public is looking at."

Jim Crites, executive vice president of operations for D/FW, said two groups of airport officials were meeting Thursday and again today about the investigation and to determine what they can do to ensure that the airport is operating safely.

In his letter and report, Bloch outlined 11 incidents documented by the whistle-blowers, both of whom work for the FAA at D/FW.

The incidents involved planes that were flying too close to each other, either on takeoff or approach, according to the report. The incidents involved flights taking off or landing at D/FW and Love Field, and one involving Love and the Addison Airport.

Bloch told the Star-Telegram in an interview late Wednesday that the FAA has done little to correct these kinds of problems since his office looked into similar allegations at air traffic control in North Texas a few years ago.

Jan Collmer, the airport board's chairman, took exception to that statement at Thursday's board meeting.

"I have a great deal of faith and trust in the FAA," he said. "I would go to bat to defend the controllers. Without clear proof to the contrary, to accuse them prematurely is, in my mind, a bit rash."

D/FW incidents

Here's one example of an "operational error" at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport's air traffic control that a special investigator says wasn't properly reported.

A tower controller clears an American Eagle flight for departure without contacting a departure controller.

The pilots take off and contact departure control as instructed.

The departure controller calls the tower controller and says he didn't release the Eagle flight for departure.

The tower controller acknowledges the mistake, and the departure controller hangs up.

The American Eagle flight crosses from the tower's airspace into the departure controller's space. At this point, an "operational deviation" has occurred, an FAA whistle-blower tells investigators.

Instead, the special investigator says, an FAA assistant facility manager determines that proper coordination occurred because the exchange between the controllers occurred while the American Eagle plane was still in the tower's airspace.

Source: Federal Office of Special Counsel

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David Wethe, 817-685-3803

dwethe@star-telegram.com

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