FAA Culture of Cover Up Put Air Traffic Controllers to Sleep
By Scott J. Bloch
G.K. Chesterton said, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” This famous witticism turns out too often to be a guiding principle for government oversight. Americans are tired and frustrated. We sense that there is too much money and corruption in our government. We’re tired of compromise in aviation safety by the Federal Aviation Administration. We now learn from the Transportation Department Inspector General that near misses are up over fifty percent.
You know there is something wrong when every week for a month controllers are being caught falling asleep on the job, watching movies, or bringing the First Lady’s airplane up close and personal with the flying public. And more recently the Second Lady’s plane was on a crash course with another plane out of Chicago O’Hare airport. Somebody is going to pay. Only it will not be the FAA. They’ll find a suitable scapegoat. And if anyone speaks up, he will be fired or retaliated against.
Over and over, when the FAA is caught asleep at the wheel, those in charge rattle their sabers, fire low level individuals and allow the management that refuses to play by the rules to stay in power. Soon it all slouches back into a comfy system because the FAA does not like oversight, does not tolerate whistleblowers, and will say whatever it takes for the cameras to stop rolling and the members of Congress to stop having hearings. I know because I shined the light on FAA malfeasance and cover up for five years when I headed the independent oversight agency United States Office of Special Counsel (OSC).
In several rounds of near-misses of aircraft, Air Traffic Controller Anne Whiteman learned that blowing the whistle on FAA malfeasance did not pay. She was proved right in two separate investigations by my office, one in 2005 (featured on Oprah show), one in 2007 with a second whistleblower in her control facility. During that round, she revealed cover ups of serious near misses, including controllers playing chicken with planes, and the FAA lying about fixing the problem. In the second round, FAA tried to shift blame to pilots in order to cover up safety violations and keep those safety numbers from edging up. After the Inspector General and press revealed the seriousness of the cover ups, the FAA swore it had taken care of the problems, the wrongdoers, and would no longer cover up near misses and incidents that endangered passengers. But they hadn’t.
Anne Whiteman was retaliated against so often she felt she had to retire. Threats to her life, removal of privileges of employment, attempts to find dirt on her, and harassment by management and rank and file alike took their toll. Now the third round is upon us, and we are seeing no sign that the house cleans itself. OSC also experienced several rounds with FAA on cover up of fraudulent mechanics certificates for FAA safety mechanics. In that case, the whistleblower experienced retaliation as well.
Witness another example of a repeat problem in the grounding a month ago of some 300 scheduled flights, and hundreds of aircraft due to the five-foot fuselage hole and depressurization of the Southwest Airlines flight 812 in Yuma, Arizona. We brought these problems to light in 2007 and in 2008, Congressional hearings, OSC’s investigation, and Inspector General’s findings showed a cover up of the structural fatigue cracks in the ageing Boeing 737-300, 700 and other 737 series. Our whistleblowers, like Anne Whiteman, came forward and revealed a wide scale cover up of FAA and Southwest Airlines refusing to comply with Airworthiness Directives (ADs) requiring regular inspections of the fuselage of these Boeing 737s for just the type of holes or cracks that appeared in the recent depressurization of flight 812.
Whistleblowers Bobby Boutris and Doug Peters reported to OSC that they as FAA maintenance inspectors were being stopped from enforcing this AD by FAA management under the so-called partnership program with the airlines. We found a violation of the AD and retaliation against Boutris and Peters for their efforts to uphold this important safety regulation. There was a revolving door problem of FAA safety inspectors being invited into cushier jobs with the very airlines they were supposed to oversee. We referred the case to the Inspector General of the Department of Transportation, Calvin Scovell III, for fuller investigation and correction of the problems, which he confirmed had occurred. Massive attention was paid, a high level FAA executive had to leave his job, 1000 planes were grounded, a whole fleet of Boeing 737s were mothballed, and still Southwest and other Airlines were allowed to let slide these dangers.
I found that powerful interests in government don’t like oversight one bit, and they retaliate and come after you. Is this the kind of oversight and aviation industry we want in America? Consider that in the face of ongoing problems with structural fatigue in the old 737, and in Boeing’s Next Generation or NG 737, which is also facing non-conforming parts creating the very same structural integrity problems in the news. So did the FAA or Inspector General of the Transportation Department look into this? Not at all. FAA has gone into business with Boeing to develop the Next Gen or NG warning system and, so far, has tried to sweep the 737 NG structural problems under the rug. FAA is paying Boeing billions to develop and implement this NG system. Is this what America expects of its public officials, to get in bed with Boeing or other large aviation interests?
John Adams said, “Good government is an empire of laws.” But what happens when officials won’t enforce those laws? We, the citizens, have to join with vigorous representatives who are not merely beholden to lobbyists or industry. They have tried to silence the whistleblowers, silence their critics. But their voices will be heard. That is if weren’t not asleep at the switch.
Hon. Scott J. Bloch was Special Counsel over the U.S. Office of Special Counsel from December of 2003 until December of 2008 and now practices law on behalf of aviation and other whistleblowers, injured government contractors, and private and public employees, in Washington, D.C.