Lerner: FAA failed to respond promptly to whistleblowers' concerns

Thursday - 5/10/2012, 12:01pm EDT

Carolyn Lerner, special counsel, Office of Special Counsel

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Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner notified President Barack Obama and Congress earlier this week that the Federal Aviation Administration had not acted promptly on reports of safety concerns from its own employees.

Lerner said FAA workers' attempts to raise red flags about air traffic controllers falling asleep on the job, unauthorized aircraft flying in U.S. Airspace and lax oversight of airlines maintenance programs were being ignored.

"What we were seeing was an extraordinary number of complaints coming from FAA employees," Lerner told The Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp Thursday.

"Usually," she said, "we close out about 25 or 30 cases a year and we had seven FAA cases ready to go to the president and Congress in a very short period of time plus two more being investigated by the DoT that we referred to them, plus three more being investigated by our agency or being reviewed by our agency to determine whether they should be referred."

By statute, the DoT is required to investigate a case once the Office of Special Counsel has referred the case to the agency.

"Once it meets our very high standard of showing a likelihood that the complaint has merit, we refer it to the agency for investigation," Lerner said. "In here, they did find in six out of seven cases that they all had merit."

Letter details employees' complaints

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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

"There was one case of a near miss outside of New York where an air traffic controller wasn't using appropriate language," Lerner said. "He was using dangerously imprecise language and that almost did cause a near miss."

Repeated reports to OSC

Lerner pointed out that OSC's involvement was not a matter of DoT retaliating over whistleblower complaints; rather, OSC was acting on notices from the whistleblowers that the agency had either not followed up on the original complaints or taken the necessary steps to address the reported safety problems at FAA.

"The problem was that these whistleblowers had to keep coming back to us repeatedly," Lerner said. "They had initially gone to the FAA, one as early as 2005, to report these safety problems. These had been going on for a long time. Four of the seven whistleblowers had to come back to our agency twice because, even though the Department of Transportation had found their claims to be credible, they didn't take appropriate remedial action."

Although the safety issues stretched over a variety of areas, Lerner was quick to point out that she did not think there were any serious concerns for air travelers.

"To be very clear, we are not saying that the U.S. aviation is unsafe," Lerner said. "Unquestionably, it has a very long and impressive safety record. But, the FAA's failure to take its own employees' concerns seriously and respond promptly is a flaw in its otherwise stellar credentials."

Now that Lerner has reported to DoT, Congress and the president about the whistleblower concerns, all that's left for OSC to do is monitor the situation.

"In terms of reform, if there's going to be more or better oversight, that's really up to Congress and the president," Lerner said. "We've recommended they consider that."

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