Special counsel letter details air safety concerns

Wednesday - 5/9/2012, 9:48am EDT

Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner sent a strongly worded letter to President Barack Obama Tuesday, calling attention to reports of safety lapses at some U.S. commercial aviation facilities. She also criticized the Federal Aviation Administration for insufficiently responding to whistleblower disclosures from its employees.

The disclosures originated from eight employees of the Transportation Department's FAA to the Office of the Special Counsel. The disclosures were not made in unison, but were made in close enough proximity to raise Lerner's concern about aviation safety.

Seven of the eight whistleblowers had brought their concerns to the FAA first before filing them with the OSC. Of those eight, four filed repeat disclosures with OSC when corrective measures failed to remedy the problems or promised changes were not implemented.

In her letter, Lerner summarized the seven specific disclosures:

  • Helicopters used by first responders in emergency situations nationwide were incorrectly retro-fitted with night vision goggles. This created a potential threat to the pilots' ability to read instruments.

  • Air traffic controllers who were overseeing the greater New York airspace were criticized in a number of areas, including sleeping in the control room and using imprecise language when communicating with pilots.

  • Departing aircraft at New Jersey's Teterboro Airport were cleared with inadequate separation from heavy jet aircraft making their final approach to Newark Liberty International Airport.

  • Maintenance inspections of fuel tank and electrical wiring interconnection systems by Delta were not in compliance with federal standards.

  • Unauthorized aircraft often entered the U.S. airspace near San Juan, Puerto Rico.

  • Controllers at Detroit Metropolitan Airport (DTW) were unable to maintain necessary separation from parallel runways and follow rules for missed approaches at the same time.

  • DTW was relying on faulty wind instruments.

Lerner shared this information with Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, who then referred it to DOT's inspector general and the FAA's Office of Audit and Evaluation, both of whom conducted investigations and filed reports.

After reviewing those investigations, Lerner found one DOT report reasonable; two reports reasonable, but with unreasonable delays in taking corrective measures; and four reports unreasonable in total.

"These disclosures paint a picture of an agency with insufficient responsiveness given its critical public safety mission," Lerner wrote in her letter. "Although the United States' aviation system is the safest in the world, the public properly expects zero tolerance for unnecessary risks. Preventative measures could be far more effective if the Department of Transportation listened to its own employees' alarm bells, and was more prompt in its corrective actions after those alarms were sounded."