FAA Whistleblowers Vindicated for Safety Warnings

Office of Special Counsel confirms risks from computerized, conflicting flight plans.

The Office of Special Counsel on Tuesday said five air traffic controllers in the Detroit area were right to blow the whistle on public safety risks from the automated introduction of multiple, sometimes-conflicting flight plans.

In a letter to President Obama and lawmakers, Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said the Transportation Department had substantiated the allegations that “FAA employees engaged in conduct that constitutes gross mismanagement and a substantial and specific danger to public safety by failing to address frequent and systemic problems with computer-based systems designed to automate the filing and amending of flight plans and delivery of departure clearances.”

A separate allegation that the Detroit control tower lacked an operations manager was not confirmed.

The five controllers, who agreed to have their names published, are Vincent Sugent, John Overman, Corinna Morris, Michael Redies and Lewis Bird. “The whistleblowers in Detroit deserve our deep gratitude,” said Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner in a statement. “While more work needs to be done, their actions reignited efforts to address the problems.”

Transportation’s investigation over the past three years found that air traffic control facilities across the national airspace regularly encounter conflicting flight plans during pre-departure clearance, “and that it is significantly more common during inclement weather periods,” the counsel wrote. The whistleblowers had also noted that alerts and notifications to controllers and flight crews “often occur erroneously, displaying revision alerts when no revisions have been made, revisions for flights that simply do not exist, or revisions to flights that have already departed.” Flight plans include such information as departure times, altitude and flight speed.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx agreed with the initial findings, and commended the whistleblowers in a May 2014 letter to the Office of Special Counsel, saying corrective actions have being taken. In response to the whistleblowers’ disclosures, the FAA in December 2014 alerted flight crews and controllers to the risk, stating that it is seeing an “increasing trend” of multiple flight plans nationwide.

Conflicting flight plans raise the risk of delays, collisions and accidents due to turbulence, the FAA said, and add to controller and pilot workload when they have to be reconciled.

The root of the problem, the FAA found, is that the agency lacks statutory requirements or enforcement mechanisms to ensure flight plans are filed using established protocols. The FAA also found that some airline dispatchers fail to follow proper protocols for entering new information on flight plans.

In 2012, the FAA created a working group to address the problem with multiple flight plans. However, according to the FAA, “the group has had little impact.” The FAA also states that some senior officials “either were not aware of, or did not perceive the significance of the problem.” The working group has now been revived.

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