Watchdog report blasts FAA over whistleblowers

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(CBS/AP) The former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board said that, despite the "terrible" revelations in recent government watchdog agency reports on air traffic controllers, he believes work and safety conditions have improved because of recent changes made by the government agencies responsible.

In a report released earlier this week by the Office of the Special Counsel, or OSC (which protects whistle-blowers), controllers at one of the world's busiest air traffic control facilities in Long Island, N.Y., slept in the control room at night, left shifts early, used personal electronic devices while on duty, ignored proper procedures, and manipulated work schedules to gain overtime pay.

The report also charged that airline safety regulators have lagged in responding to urgent safety problems, including takeoff and landing procedures at one airport that caused some planes to nearly collide.

Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner, whose job is to protect government employees who expose mismanagement or wrongdoing from retaliation, has sent the White House and Congress letters detailing seven FAA whistle-blower cases in which safety allegations have been substantiated. In five of the seven cases, the FAA has failed to follow through fully on promised corrections, her office said.

The office said that the Federal Aviation Authority (which oversees air traffic controllers) has one of the highest rates of whistleblower filings per employee of any executive branch agency, with 178 whistleblower disclosures since FY 2007, about half (89) relating to aviation safety. OSC referred 44 of those cases to the Department of Transportation investigation, which substantiated all but five in whole or in part.

OSC calls for stronger DOT oversight (pdf)

Among the problems revealed by whistleblower complaints: Emergency service helicopters used by first responders nationwide were incorrectly retrofitted for night vision goggles, posing a potential threat to pilots' ability to read instruments; and air traffic controllers in the greater New York area airspace slept in the control room, left their shifts early, used personal electronic devices while on the job, and used dangerously imprecise language when directing aircraft, resulting in a near-crash.

Lerner said it took the "years-long persistence of one whistle-blower and two referrals from my office for FAA to acknowledge that its oversight was lacking" with regard to the night vision googles problem and begin safety corrections.

The cases show a pattern dating at least to 2007 in which employees have complained to the special counsel that the FAA refused to heed warnings about significant safety issues and then promised to correct the problems only when forced by oversight agencies, Lerner said.

The cases "paint a picture of an agency with insufficient responsiveness given its critical public safety mission," Lerner said in her letter.

The allegations about controllers at the Long Island center were made public last year by Evan Seeley, a controller who has since been transferred to another facility at his request. The FAA has since replaced most of the center's top managers.

On "CBS This Morning: Saturday," Mark Rosenker, the former head of the NTSB, said that last year's report dealing with the Ronkonkoma Air Traffic Control Center was one that "really tipped me over as it related to the behavior of the controllers in that particular facility.

"They were using laptops while they were on duty," Rosenker said. "They were using cell phones, they were, in fact, leaving their shifts early. They demonstrated insubordination to their management - Clearly, the kind of behavior we saw there was not adding to our safety in the aviation community."

Rosenker called "disturbing" the indication that management seemed to be going along. "They seemed to be afraid of the controllers there. The particular individual who went to the Office of Special Counsel, the whistleblower if you will, had been threatened, his car was vandalized, he got demoted. This was a terrible, terrible work environment."

However, Rosenker said that despite the new report, "99.9 percent of the people that are working in these jobs are very dedicated. They're very skilled. And they do an excellent job. There are 50,000 operations that occur every day. They occur without incident. They occur routinely. They occur safely."

He also said he does not think the situation is getting worse. "Remember, [the new report's cases] could go back as far as 2010. What we've seen is a significant improvement. Remember, last year we saw a number of controllers that were asleep on their job. That was not because they wanted to come in and fall asleep; it is because of the way the system had been geared.

"Once, in fact, the Department of Transportation and FAA really began to look at what was happening out there, they made substantial changes," including shifting hours to prevent fatiguing work schedules.