Agency: D/FW air traffic management covering up mistakes

Jul. 12--Air traffic controllers who watch over North Texas skies are repeatedly allowing airplanes to fly into situations that could result in a crash -- and upper management is systematically shifting the blame to the pilots involved, according to an investigative federal agency.

The Office of Special Counsel, an independent investigative and prosecutorial agency that enforces laws protecting government whistleblowers, is requesting a special investigation into the operation and management of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport's air traffic control system, which also oversees the air traffic into Love Field. The investigation may be widened to a national scope.

"We're talking about a culture of fraud," U.S. Special Counsel Scott J. Bloch, who heads the agency, said in an interview. "It's a pretty shocking saga of what is going on down there."

Managers with air traffic control at the airport referred comment to the Federal Aviation Administration. So did the spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation. The FAA released a statement that says there are numerous audits that take place to ensure all air traffic controller errors are reported and are correctly classified.

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

This will be the second investigation of D/FW airport's air control system in two years. The first occurred after whistleblower Anne Whiteman alerted the FAA that managers at the Terminal Radar Approach Control, which handles all air traffic over North Texas, intentionally ignored and covered up many instances in which jets flew too close to one another.

After Ms. Whiteman's disclosures, another controller nearly forced her vehicle off the road, according to police and federal documents. That controller, who was never charged, said the incident was unintentional. Ms. Whiteman also reported that she was harassed, threatened and intimidated by her co-workers and managers. The Office of Special Counsel concluded its investigation on Monday and confirmed that Ms. Whiteman faced retaliation, mistreatment and a hostile environment.

Two years ago, the FAA agreed to fix the problems found by the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general. The agency also moved Ms. Whiteman from the job she loved as a controller in the radar room to a controller position in the tower.

But now a second whistleblower, who has asked to remain anonymous, has come forward with allegations of how jets are still flying too close to one another because of controller errors. The whistleblower said that the controllers' mistakes are then swept under the rug, and the pilots are blamed, according to Mr. Bloch.

"I received that information, and it was shocking," Mr. Bloch said. The information "regarded radar replays and data plots showing operational errors and the FAA's attempt to shift blame to pilots. It showed errors putting airplanes into each other's course that could result in a crash and attempts by the FAA to cover it up."

The Office of Special Counsel approached Ms. Whiteman about the allegations. She backed up the whistleblower's stories about safety lapses still occurring regularly.

"Nothing has changed. They just manipulated how they hide things," Ms. Whiteman told The Dallas Morning News. She is now an air traffic control supervisor in the tower at D/FW.

"Now we're into a 9 1/2 year cover up," said Mr. Bloch. He told the U.S. Department of Transportation by letter on Tuesday that he was ordering an investigation into air travel safety at D/FW and possibly at other facilities across the country. The department has 60 days to conclude the investigation.

"We believe this might be national in scope to artificially suppress the number of errors in FAA control facilities and towers," he said.

Controllers who make errors normally get supplemental training or are removed from their positions, if appropriate. But if the items are not reported as controller errors, that does not occur.

"The controllers report them, and then it's in the hands of management. It's management's decision," said Mike Conely, representative of National Air Traffic Controllers Association Local D10 at D/FW Airport.

He pointed out that the number of controllers at D/FW has dropped to 68 from 100 about five years ago. "I'm not saying that leads to more errors, but it means you've got tired eyes watching the skies," he said. "They're having to work more airplanes, more days, more hours."

Air traffic controllers keep the pilots from complaining by suggesting that they file an Airline Safety Action Partnership report, Mr. Bloch said. These were created by the aviation industry to track safety issues and correct them. At the same time, the ASAP report keeps the event off of the pilot's safety record, unless the incident was particularly egregious.

"If the pilot complains, the controllers tell the pilots to self-report. Then it will never appear on their record. There's a technique to make sure that no one is ever held accountable," said Mr. Bloch.

In the letter to Department of Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters, Mr. Bloch wrote: "It appears to be acceptable and established FAA practice to treat operational errors such as airplane separation, runway incursions, incorrect flight instructions to pilots, near misses and other dangerous situations as pilot errors not requiring reporting."

An accompanying report has details on why an investigation is being ordered. It alleges several instances of controller errors, including:

--Airplanes that could have collided during a descent mishap.

--A smaller airplane following too closely in the wake turbulence of a big jet.

A pilot who was instructed to make a turn that couldn't be executed given the amount of time and space -- and then blamed for not being able to do so.

"In summary, these allegations expose a continuing pattern by FAA management of abuse of the basic measures of protection meant to insulate the flying public from disasters that very well may be preventable," the letter states.

Fort Worth-based American Airlines spokesman John Hotard said the airline is not aware of the investigation. "There was one instance in 2006, but beyond that, we're not aware of any other issues involving pilots being blamed," said Mr. Hotard.

A spokeswoman for Southwest Airlines, based in Dallas, also said they were aware of only one event. "We have seen no increase in pilot deviation errors. Nor do we have any problem with Dallas/Fort Worth air traffic control," spokeswoman Paula Berg said.

Still, there has been a large spike in pilot deviations, according to federal aviation officials. But they attribute the vast majority of those to the institution of a global satellite navigation system that guides pilots along more direct departure routes. Officials say the deviation numbers dropped again as pilots were trained on that system.

Ms. Whiteman is eligible to retire now but hasn't because she considers air traffic control a calling. She said that some of the deviations can indeed be attributed to the new routing, but that doesn't explain away so many of the reports. Since January, the radar room at D/FW has reported about 100 pilot deviations, she said.

For Ms. Whiteman, speaking out has been heartbreaking but necessary. "How could you not report this? How do you sit idly by?" she asked. "To become the enemy of the FAA is something that is impossible for me to accept. I've done this for all the right reasons, because I love this job so much."

THREE INCIDENTS:

--May 17, 2007: A tower controller cleared an American Airlines 757 aircraft for departure. These large aircraft can produce enough wake turbulence to flip small airplanes that follow too closely. Meanwhile, an American Eagle flight was approaching D/FW Airport, but the controller failed to tell that pilot to contact the tower. Instead of landing without a clearance, the pilot circled the plane. The American Eagle jet flew just 1.98 miles behind the 757 aircraft. The minimum safe distance is 4 miles. Air traffic management decided that no operational error occurred because the controller hadn't spoken to the American Eagle pilot.

--Feb. 7, 2007: An aircraft departing D/FW was told to climb to 10,000 feet. The pilot misunderstood the clearance and told the controller he was climbing to 5,000 feet. Meanwhile, a Southwest Airlines flight departed Dallas Love Field, and the two airplanes headed toward one another south of the airport. The pilot of the original aircraft was held accountable for missing the proper altitude. But the controller was not held accountable for failing to ensure that the pilot read back the right clearance or correct altitude, as required.

--Oct. 10, 2006: A business jet was heading southwest into Dallas Love Field. A small private airplane was heading south, and they were on a converging course. The controller needed the business jet to descend rapidly to get below the private plane. When the business jet didn't descend quickly enough, the controller turned the private plane in a different direction to avoid a midair collision. The controller should have told the business jet to descend more quickly or let the pilots of the two planes know there was the possibility of a collision. No operational error was filed.

Source: Report of Disclosures Referred for Investigation by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel

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