Dec. 22, 2009 — -- The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) spent five million dollars this month to bring 3, 600 managers to a conference in Atlanta that FAA whistleblowers and critics say was little more than an excuse to throw a three-week-long Christmas party.
"It's the wrong time to spend five million dollars on a Christmas party for anybody's employees, especially in the government," said Tom Schatz, the president of Citizens Against Government Waste, a non-profit watchdog group.
Undercover video to be broadcast tonight on ABC World News with Diane Sawyer shows FAA managers drinking heavily and making the rounds of Atlanta bars after a day of meetings.
One FAA manager told an ABC News undercover reporter, "Anytime you get a bunch of FAA guys together, it is nothing but a party." Another said, "It beats being at work."
The FAA says the purpose of the December meetings was to train managers on the new contract for air traffic controllers that went into effect on Oct. 1.
"This is worth it because we have to get the frontline managers on-board with what we're trying to do," said Hank Krakowski, the chief operating officer of the FAA's Air Traffic Operations.
The FAA managers received $81 per day to spend on meals and personal expenses. The hotel room cost was $140 per night.
At the end of one day of meetings, an FAA manager said he and others were about to head out "to dance on tables shortly." He boasted he was "almost arrested" for being drunk and "dancing on the tables" at the last such FAA managers gathering in St. Louis in 2006.
Another conference attendee asked a female ABC News undercover reporter if she was a "hooker" because "I was ready to reach for my wallet."
FAA Morale Problems
"We expect a level of professionalism from our employees at all times, including after work hours," said an FAA spokesperson. "Reports of unruly public behavior are disappointing for the entire FAA."
FAA whistleblowers also questioned why, if the meetings were so important, they were held more than two months after the contract was enacted.
The FAA said the agency scheduled the gatherings for December at a time when it believed the contract would not be in place until Jan. 1.
Some FAA managers attending the sessions said they were held in a large ballroom and only dealt with only 12 of more than 100 separate contract articles and involved no small, break-out sessions. The FAA told ABC News the sessions dealt with 34 articles.
"It seems a little extravagant," said one whistleblower in a message to ABCNews.com. "One would think a PowerPoint or even a videoconference would suffice."
The FAA said the discussions of the new contract would not have been as effective on a tele-conference.
"Given the complexity of the contract and the need for managers to fully understand it, the training had to be done face-to-face not through a memo or webcast," the FAA said in a statement.
The FAA also seemed to suggest the agency's long-standing morale problems justified spending the money.
"The FAA is engaged in a process of significant cultural change, the need for which is widely acknowledged," said the statement.
FAA manager Steve Lewis of Phoenix said he thought the meetings and an evening buffet cocktail party would help provide "a more harmonious workplace."
The FAA said there was also a special "focus session" on improving the "safety culture" at the FAA.
"Anyone who is flying, whose flight has been delayed or canceled could find a lot better usage for five million dollars for the FAA," said Schatz of Citizens Against Government Waste.
FAA Official Gets Governor's Suite
The meetings took place over the course of three weeks, with 1,200 FAA managers attending each week.
The FAA said "Atlanta was deemed the best value city" and the meeting resulted in the host Omni hotel employing 700 additional workers to handle the conference.
As part of the hospitality for the FAA, the hotel threw in the cost of the buffet cocktail party for the government managers and also provided Krakowski, the senior FAA official present, with the expansive Governor's Suite on the 28th floor.
A FAA spokesperson said Krakowski's suite was charged at the $140 per diem rate and that the FAA "did not pay for any Christmas parties."
"Clearly the cost of the cocktail reception and whatever was done by the hotel was included in the cost," said Schatz of the watchdog group. "No hotel is going to have a party for so many guests without covering the hotel's costs."
The FAA has been beset by a series of technical and computer glitches that have created chaos for the country's air passengers. The agency is pushing for a $22 billion dollar upgrade to replace equipment that, in some cases, dates to the 1960s.