FAA Accepts Blame for Air Traffic Errors

Anne Whiteman has had some particularly bad days on the job helping to man Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport's air traffic control system.

Whiteman said she has seen air traffic controllers playing a game of chicken with airplanes. She even recalled one day when the system had a dozen or so operational errors in an hour's time frame -- so many that pilots calling to complain were being put on hold.

She said two colleagues once played a trick on her by putting two planes on a collision course. Distracted by the ruse, one of the men forgot to monitor his aircraft and the plane flew past the airport.

"I thought two aircraft were going to collide, and I didn't have anyone in my corner, and I was scared," Whiteman recalled Thursday. "I was scared not just for me but for everyone else."


Something happened every shift, she said, "where somebody would do something outside the boundaries of normalcy."

Today, years after Whiteman first complained that Federal Aviation Administration managers were covering up controller mistakes, the FAA accepted blame and announced it is seriously stepping up its efforts to clean up the system. The announcement comes the same day that a report investigating Whiteman's allegations in Dallas makes its way to the Office of Special Counsel, an office that enforces laws protecting government whistle-blowers.

The inspector general's report finds that errors in Dallas were intentionally misclassified by managers. It happened 62 times between November 2005 and July 2007. When controllers would make "operational errors," managers would record them as "pilot errors" instead. Operational errors are a key way for the FAA to gauge safety, and if they are hidden or downplayed, the agency gets an inaccurate picture of what's really going on to direct traffic in the skies.

The Office of Special Counsel will have the whistle-blower look at the inspector general's report and comment on it before making the report public.

In response, the FAA said Thursday it's creating a system to make sure incident reporting is done by an independent assessment rather than by facility managers. The agency also said it would quicken its effort to put in place new technology to better monitor what's actually going on, will conduct more audits and will train within six months air traffic facility managers about documenting errors.

This is the inspector general's second report on the issue, and the second time the FAA has vowed to clean up its act.

"We failed as an organization in enacting these commitments to the IG," said Hank Krakowski, chief operating officer of the FAA's air traffic organization.

"We're not going to stand for this," said acting FAA administrator Robert Sturgell. "It's an issue of integrity to me."

Whiteman said she'll believe it when she sees it, and that the report's findings will likely come as no surprise to her.

"For me, that's not really any big revelation," said Whiteman, who now works as an air traffic control supervisor in the tower at Dallas/Fort Worth rather than in the facility that handles the planes on approach. "Unless you hold all these people accountable, these things will never change."

National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Patrick Forrey also blasted the FAA Thursday, saying, "Let me make this point perfectly clear: We are talking about an FAA management cover-up here."

"The aviation system is cracking under the weight of the FAA's many recent and highly publicized management failures," Forrey said.

But Krakowski said those practices happening in Dallas were not happening elsewhere. He said Dallas had a 25 percent misclassification rate, whereas others came in at 3 percent.

In January 2007, the FAA reassigned the facility manager and assistant manager in Dallas. They now do administrative duties elsewhere in the FAA. An administrator was similarly reassigned recently within the FAA in another whistle-blower case that exposed problems with the agency's inspection and maintenance procedures.

Charging that the FAA operates according to "a culture of complacency," the Office of Special Counsel's Scott Bloch said Thursday he's worried about "a national trend both in suppression of errors by air traffic controllers, as well as suppression of safety inspectors' findings of deviations from airworthiness directives." Bloch said in a statement that the FAA's culture "could not have been possible without the support of leadership in Washington."

Meantime, Whiteman said that the culture at her Dallas workplace hasn't entirely changed either.

"Some of the same players are doing some of the same things," she said.