Whistleblower agency alerts White House to troubling pattern in aviation safety

Mark Lennihan/AP

This story has been updated.

The Office of Special Counsel is so concerned over multiple disclosures by Federal Aviation Administration whistleblowers citing safety lapses at major U.S. airports that the agency has sent the White House a consolidated report claiming a pattern of failure by the Transportation Department to sufficiently address the issues.

“The broader problem that these disclosures represent, together with a pattern of insufficient responses by the FAA, require additional scrutiny,” Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner stated in a May 8 letter to President Obama. OSC typically reports on whistleblower disclosures individually, but took the highly unusual step of combining seven of the most recent allegations of wrongdoing to emphasize the need for greater oversight by Transportation, FAA’s parent department.

“Given the recurring and serious natures of these concerns, I write with a strong recommendation that more rigorous oversight measures be put in place at DOT and FAA to ensure a higher standard for aviation safety,” the letter stated. Lerner and OSC staff briefed reporters on the findings and oversight recommendations Tuesday.

OSC reviewed the number of FAA whistleblower cases it received from fiscal 2007 to present, citing 178 disclosures from agency whistleblowers during that time -- 87 related to aviation security. Of those 87, roughly 50 percent -- or 44 -- met OSC’s threshold for referring the disclosure to Transportation for investigation and the department overwhelmingly substantiated or partially substantiated the majority of those allegations. OSC has an overall disclosure referral rate of 5 percent for other government agencies. According to the Office of Special Counsel, FAA has one of the highest rates of whistleblower filings per employee of federal agencies.

OSC is an independent agency, which, among other duties, investigates whistleblower complaints and enforces the Hatch Act.

Some of the eight FAA whistleblowers included in OSC’s report to the president repeatedly complained about vulnerabilities in air safety. “Seven of the eight whistleblowers notified the FAA of their concerns before filing disclosures with OSC,” Lerner stated in the letter. “Four of these eight whistleblowers filed repeat disclosures with OSC when they observed that corrective actions were not sufficient to resolve their safety concerns, or were promised but not implemented.” OSC is investigating a claim of retaliation alleged by one of the whistleblowers, Lerner said during the briefing. The whistleblower disclosures included:

  • Air traffic controllers in the New York area were asleep in the control room while on duty, leaving their shifts early, using personal electronic devices on the job and imprecise language when directing aircraft that almost resulted in a crash
  • Inconsistent guidance provided for runway operations at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, which has increased the odds of near-misses between planes landing and taking off
  • Improper installation of night-vision goggles in emergency medical service helicopters, impairing pilots’ ability to see
  • Unauthorized aircraft frequently found in the U.S. airspace near San Juan, Puerto Rico
  • Insufficient distance maintained between aircraft departing New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport and planes landing at Newark Liberty International Airport
  • Delta Airlines’ inspection and maintenance programs for fuel tank and electrical wiring interconnection systems failed to comply with federal regulations

Lerner said some of Transportation’s findings into the allegations were reasonable, but she remained concerned over delays in, or a lack of, corrective action in other instances.

Transportation said in a statement that it takes all whistleblower complaints seriously, and has been working with OSC since February 2010 on the seven specific cases cited in the White House report. In 2009, FAA established an office responsible for ensuring whistleblower cases are reviewed and investigated independently.

“We are confident that America’s flying public is safe -- thanks in part to changes that DOT and FAA have already made in response to these concerns and other whistleblower disclosures,” the statement said. “DOT is committed to continuing to review its policies and practices to implement improvements where necessary.”

During the briefing, Lerner emphasized her office’s concern over repeated whistleblower allegations -- there are five more complaints currently being investigated -- but stopped short of alarmism.

“To be clear, we are not saying U.S. aviation is unsafe,” she said. But a snapshot of the problems brought to light by the whistleblowers included in the White House report indicates a troubling pattern in aviation safety, Lerner acknowledged.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., weighed in on OSC’s findings, noting the office “raises some very significant concerns about aviation safety and information revealed by FAA whistleblowers.” Mica urged the Transportation Department to look closely at the issues. “While the U.S. aviation system is the safest in the world, we must stay vigilant to ensure it remains as safe as possible,” he said.

A group representing thousands of FAA employees criticized what it said was a slow response to correcting problems the whistleblowers raised. “Our concern rests with the serious delays in addressing these elevated concerns and timeliness of proper resolution and attention,” said Linda Goodrich, vice president of flight standards at the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists.

Update: OSC disputed Transportation’s statement regarding the timeline related to the seven whistleblower cases. Some of OSC’s referrals to the department regarding those disclosures took place in 2008, said Ann O’Hanlon, director of communications at OSC. O’Hanlon also said that of the seven cases outlined in the May 8 letter, the first whistleblower went to FAA or DOT internally in 2005, another in 2006 and others in 2008. “Some of these were the first of two referrals by the same whistleblower, so DOT may be looking at the second referral in each case and citing 2010 or later in their timeline,” O’Hanlon wrote in an email. “But part of our point, of course, was that these things delay for years and often aren’t resolved at first, forcing the whistleblower to return to our office. Thus, we are citing the first time the whistleblower or the Office of Special Counsel told FAA/DOT of the problem.”

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