Politics & Government

Inspector general calls for shakeup of DFW air controllers

Multiple flight cancellations are listed on an American Airlines arrivals monitor at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport on April 10.
Multiple flight cancellations are listed on an American Airlines arrivals monitor at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport on April 10. David Pellerin / AP

WASHINGTON — The Department of Transportation's inspector general has called for a management shakeup at the FAA's air traffic control operations at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport after finding that controllers at the Texas facility covered up operational mistakes by wrongfully classifying them as pilot errors.

Calvin Scovel released a two-page summary of his report to lawmakers Friday, a day after Federal Aviation Administration officials disclosed the findings and promised to take steps to correct the problems. The full report, the result of an extensive investigation by Scovel's office, has not been released.

The report marked the second time in three years that the DOT's inspector general has substantiated whistleblower allegations about misreporting of operational errors by FAA air traffic controllers at DFW, one of the world's largest airports. The latest findings create, "at a minimum, the appearance of a cover-up," Scovel said.

Both investigations, which stem from complaints made by whistleblower Anne Whiteman, focused on DFW's Terminal Radar Approach Control, or TRACON, where radar operators direct air traffic within a 60-mile radius of the heavily congested airport.

Other components of the air control system include the control tower, which directs take-offs and landings, and en-route centers, which handle long-distance traffic. TRACONs and control towers handle approximately three-fourths of all air traffic operations in the United States.

The initial investigation, released in 2005 by Scovel's predecessor, Kenneth Mead, cited an operational error in which a controller directed a passenger jet and a business jet into converging courses, drawing them within seven seconds of a mid-air collision before the pilots took corrective courses.

Scovel's summary did not cite examples but contained statistics showing that, from November 2005 to July 2007, Dallas-Fort Worth's TRACON management misclassified 52 controller operational errors and 10 operational deviations as pilot deviations or non-events. Deviation is FAA jargon for when an aircraft controlled by one operator flies into space assigned to another controller.

Scovel called on FAA headquarters to permanently change the DFW TRACON management and consider "appropriate administrative action" for seven TRACON managers "who bear the responsibility" for the misclassifications. He also called for a "top-to-bottom review" of safety management at the FAA's Air Traffic Office.

FAA officials announced Thursday that they had replaced and reassigned Dallas-Fort Worth's TRACON facility manager and assistant manager pending further investigation.

Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, whose district includes part of the airport, said the improvements are long needed.

"I'm glad they're taking this seriously and making some changes that are long overdue," he said. "I just welcome the scrutiny that's being applied to the FAA because I think it's necessary."

Scovel said that while his office found "`compelling evidence to conclude that the misclassifications were intentional, we were unable to ascribe a specific motive to TRACON management for doing so."

The investigators also found no evidence that the managers "acted in response to any direction from FAA senior leaders or an FAA-wide policy,"' the report said. But both investigations, said Scovel, "found a lack of proper oversight within FAA."