Politics & Government

FAA says officials in Texas covered up controller errors

WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration, already under fire from Congress for its handling of airline safety, faced more controversy Thursday following disclosures that FAA officials in Texas were involved in the intentional misclassification of errors by flight controllers at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport.

"We're not going to stand for this," declared acting FAA Administrator Robert A. Sturgell as the agency responded to the findings of a critical report by the Department of Transportation's inspector general.

The investigation stems from allegations that first surfaced more than four years ago when Anne Whiteman, an air traffic control operator for the FAA, became a government whistle-blower and reported that air traffic control mistakes at DFW were being covered up.

An inspector general investigation validated her claims, but the new IG report said that promised corrections weren't fully implemented. In response to the findings, FAA officials reassigned a supervisor and assistant supervisor at DFW pending the outcome of an investigation and took steps to toughen the reporting of airspace errors.

In a telephone interview with McClatchy, Whiteman said she's endured years of harassment from fellow FAA employees and was reassigned after she first reported the problems.

Although the FAA characterized many of the operational errors as minor, Whiteman, an FAA employee for 21 years, said there were repeated incidents in which planes were brought too close together in congested air space, endangering passenger safety.

``They can downplay anything, but from the inside looking out and knowing what the rules are, there were several examples (when ) aircraft came dangerously close to colliding,'' she said. ``It's not my intent to scare the heck out of everybody, but it is my intent to show that the FAA has not been honest with the public.''

The inspector general found that the Dallas-Fort Worth Terminal Approach Control investigated operational errors and deviations, but it routinely and intentionally misclassified them as pilot errors or "non-events."

Between November 2005 and July 2007, the report concluded, managers misclassified 62 air traffic events as pilot deviation or non-events when in fact there were 52 operational errors and 10 operational deviations by air traffic controllers.

FAA officials summarized the findings before the report's official release, possibly Friday. The disclosures are likely to escalate congressional criticism of the agency following inspection lapses involving Dallas-based Southwest Airlines and the mass grounding of American Airlines flights in response to the FAA's stepped-up enforcement of airline regulations.

"Unfortunately, this is another example where the FAA failed to follow its own safety procedures,'' said Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill., chairman of the House of Representatives aviation subcommittee.

"The fact that today's FAA action comes days before a potentially damning report and years after they first promised to fix this problem follows an all too familiar pattern of inaction," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

The inspector general conducted the latest inquiry at the request of the U.S. Special Counsel Office, which investigates whistle-blower complaints and was the first agency to probe the allegations from Whiteman and an anonymous FAA whistle-blower about the operations at DFW.

U.S. Special Counsel Scott Bloch said the IG report, while not yet public, seemingly validates Whiteman's assertions and illustrates a pattern ``of complacency and cover-up in the FAA.''

Bloch, in a recent congressional appearance, said the whistle-blowers presented `` credible information'' that FAA managers were systematically covering up errors, including ``loss of separation between aircraft, incorrect flight instructions to pilots and other dangerous situations."

By masking the mistakes as pilot errors, he said, the controllers and their managers were able ``to escape accountability.''

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