Federal watchdog urges stronger air-safety oversight

WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration has repeatedly dragged its feet in responding to whistleblower complaints about safety problems and stronger oversight of air safety is needed, a government watchdog said Tuesday.

Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner, whose job is to protect from retaliation government employees who expose mismanagement or wrongdoing, detailed seven FAA whistleblower cases in letters to the White House and Congress. The cases, Lerner said, “paint a picture of an agency with insufficient responsiveness given its critical public safety mission.”

Some of the cases are years old, but Lerner said air traffic controllers and other FAA whistleblowers continued to point out safety problems after making their initial allegations because the agency failed to take promised actions to correct the problems. Other cases are more recent.

For example, Lerner said an investigation has confirmed most of the complaints made last year by Evan Seeley, a controller formerly assigned to one of the world’s busiest air traffic control centers on Long Island, N.Y. Among the allegations that were substantiated were that controllers slept in the control room at night, left shifts early, used personal electronic devices while on duty, used improper air traffic control procedures and engaged in work stoppages to gain overtime pay.

While the FAA has taken action to correct those problems, Lerner said another controller has recently made nearly identical allegations about a different air traffic control facility which she didn’t identify.

The FAA has one of the highest rates of whistleblower filings per employee of any government agency, Lerner said.

The counsel’s office has received 178 whistleblower disclosures from FAA employees since 2007, 89 of which related to aviation safety. Forty-four cases were referred to the Transportation Department for investigation, and all but five were substantiated.

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