The government's special counsel urged stronger air safety oversight by the FAA. Above, an aerial view of Reagan National Airport in Alexandria, Va., is seen. (Getty Images)
The government's special counsel Tuesday urged stronger air safety oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration after investigating a series of problems laid out by whistle-blowers in recent years, including air-traffic controllers sleeping on the job.
"The public properly expects zero tolerance for unnecessary risks," said Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner, whose independent office reviews whistle-blower complaints and protects them.
"Preventive measures could be far more effective if the Department of Transportation listened to its own employees' alarm bells and acted on them properly," she said.
Instead, she said in a report sent to the White House and Congress, the Transportation Department and the FAA either dragged their feet or didn't solve the problems when brought to them by employees.
Complaints in the special counsel's nine-page letter included:
• Air-traffic controllers in New York slept in the control room, left their shifts early, used personal electronic devices on the job and used dangerously imprecise instructions with pilots resulting in a near-crash.
• Planes departing New Jersey's Teeterboro airport were too close to jets arriving at Newark.
• Inconsistent rules were in place for parallel runways at Detroit's airport that prevent planes from staying far enough apart after missing approaches. Detroit also has faulty wind instruments.
The Detroit case remains a problem because the FAA's rules for planes arriving and departing on the four parallel runways are contradictory, according to the special counsel. When departing on each pair of parallel runaways, planes are supposed to veer away from each other.
But when landing planes miss an approach, they often come too close to departing planes. On Dec. 25, 2009, a landing Northwest Airlines flight came within 0.3 miles horizontally and 200 feet vertically of a departing American Eagle flight.
Lerner said she collected seven complaints into a single letter and held her first news conference since taking office in June 2011 because the FAA often took far longer than the 60-day statutory requirement to respond to complaints.
Air-control managers were replaced in New York, but the rules that sparked the complaints remain in place for Teeterboro and Detroit.
"There did not seem to be the level of urgency that we thought many of these claims deserved," Lerner said.
The Transportation Department responded in a statement that the agency "takes all whistle-blower complaints seriously." The FAA created an office in 2009 to ensure cases were 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 whistle-blower disclosures," the statement said.
The FAA has one of the highest rates of whistle-blower reports, with 178 since 2007 and nearly half involving aviation safety, Lerner said.
Many of the reports have merit, she said. Forty-four of the 87 aviation safety reports were referred to the Transportation Department for investigation, compared with only 5% of reports getting referrals from other agencies. All but five of those referrals were ultimately substantiated at least partially, Lerner said.
Other complaints in the nine-page report detail problems with Delta maintaining fuel tanks and electrical wiring, the installation of night-vision equipment in emergency-response helicopters and unauthorized planes in the airspace around San Juan, Puerto Rico.
"The FAA has one of the highest rates of whistle-blower disclosures per employee of any executive-branch agency," Lerner said. "It probably is tough for them to sleep at night when they are aware of a problem and see it not getting fixed."