FAA Admits Controllers Wrongfully Blamed Mistakes on Pilots

Apr. 25 — The Federal Aviation Administration yesterday admitted that air-traffic controllers in Dallas intentionally blamed their own mistakes on pilots — the latest round of revelations about safety lapses at the embattled agency.

FAA officials said they are changing the way they supervise air-traffic controllers nationwide as a result of the improper error reporting at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

"Most of them were on the minor side, but not all of them," Hank Krakowski, the FAA's chief operating officer for air traffic, said of the reporting errors.

The errors most often consisted of inadequate distances between aircraft.

One incident involved an airplane crossing the path of another plane without air-traffic controllers informing either pilot.

Under new procedures announced yesterday, managers at local air-traffic-control stations would no longer have authority to assign blame for errors in reports to the FAA. Instead, reports would be turned over to an independent group within the FAA that delivers them directly to the agency's head of aviation safety.

The FAA is introducing new technology at airports nationwide to monitor air-traffic-control errors. The first computerized system is scheduled to be installed at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport this year and at other US airports nationwide by the end of 2009.

The system would "take some of the judgment calls" out of reporting flight errors, Krakowski said.

The agency also is introducing a self-reporting procedure that allows air-traffic controllers to report their own mistakes without risk of penalty.

"It will help to remove a punitive safety culture," Krakowski said.

FAA officials announced the remedial measures in response to a Transportation Department inspector general's report released yesterday that described air-traffic-control problems at the Dallas terminal.

The FAA said reporting errors were found primarily at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport.

About 25 percent of the Dallas reports categorized errors incorrectly, compared with a national average of 3 percent, according to the FAA.

Between November 2005 and July 2007, managers at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport mislabeled 62 flight incidents as "pilot deviations" or "non-events," the inspector general's report said.

Actually, 52 of the incidents were air-traffic-controller errors and only 10 were pilot mistakes, the report said.

The FAA reassigned a manager and assistant manager at the Dallas-Forth Worth air-traffic-control terminal in January to administrative duties pending a US Office of Special Counsel investigation. They might be fired, depending on what the investigation finds, FAA officials said.

Other job terminations are possible, they said.

"We're not going to stand for this," said Robert A. Sturgell, the FAA's acting administrator.

The announcement of air-traffic-control errors follows congressional hearings this month into aircraft inspection lapses at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport.

Reports that Southwest Airlines was allowed to fly dozens of airplanes as much as 30 months past their required inspection dates prompted the FAA to change the way it supervises inspectors.

Field-office managers no longer have discretion to accept reports from airlines about safety problems they corrected themselves. Instead, the managers must personally take steps to ensure repairs are made, then sign the paperwork before filing it with the FAA.

"I continue to be concerned about a national trend," said Scott Bloch, who is investigating purported air-traffic-controller cover-ups for the Office of Special Counsel.

"These problems exist because of a culture of complacency and cover-up in the FAA," he said. "This culture did not develop on its own.

I believe it happened with the complicity of higher management and could not have been possible without the support of leadership in Washington."

The US Office of Special Counsel is an independent investigative agency that analyzes disclosures of misdeeds by federal employees.

Safety lapses about the inspections, as well as the air-traffic-control reporting errors, were revealed by FAA whistle-blowers.

Anne Whiteman, an air-traffic-control supervisor in Dallas, first reported safety cover-ups to the FAA in 2004. A subsequent inspector general's audit validated her reports and suggested changes.

Whiteman also revealed the air-traffic control underreporting last year, which led to another inspector general's investigation and yesterday's report.

FAA officials said not all of the recommendations from the first audit were followed, which apparently contributed to the air-traffic-control reporting errors.

The officials said Whiteman has been threatened by other air-traffic controllers. One of them reportedly tried to run her off the road, FAA officials said.

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