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...


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.

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