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FAA failed to act on runway safety problems

A government watchdog on Friday demanded an investigation of whistleblower complaints that federal aviation officials failed to fully pursue on runway safety problems brought to their attention.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A government watchdog on Friday demanded an investigation of whistleblower complaints that federal aviation officials failed to fully pursue on runway safety problems brought to their attention.

Special Counsel Scott Bloch said in three letters to Transportation Secretary Mary Peters that the Federal Aviation Administration did not adequately respond to complaints from air traffic controllers about the potential for collisions involving planes taking off and landing on intersecting runways at airports in Memphis, Tenn., and Newark, N.J.

There is a “substantial likelihood” that conditions at the two airports “create a substantial and specific danger to public safety,” Bloch said in the letters, which were obtained by The Associated Press.

Lynn Tierney, FAA assistant administrator for communications, said Bloch’s letters represent “old investigations” and “old allegations” that “have been thoroughly reviewed.”

“The runway safety situation in both Memphis and Newark was thoroughly investigated by both the FAA’s Office of Aviation Safety Oversight and by DOT’s inspector general,” Tierney said. “The safety data demonstrates — and DOT’s IG confirmed — that there are no safety issues associated with operations at these airports. It is highly irresponsible of the special counsel to needlessly scare travelers simply to divert attention away from his significant legal issues.”

A group of current and former agency workers filed a complaint against Bloch in 2005, accusing him of using intimidation and involuntary transfers against those who opposed his policies. The workers also accused Bloch of refusing to protect federal workers from discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The inspector general at the Office of Personnel Management is investigating the latter charges.

The whistleblower complaints in Bloch’s letters involve the potential for collisions when an aircraft aborts an attempted landing and begins to climb for a “go-around” — another attempt at landing — bringing the plane into the flight path of a second plane in the process of a takeoff or landing on an intersecting runway.

Air traffic controller Peter Nesbitt had reported safety issues at Memphis International Airport to Bloch’s office nearly a year ago. FAA examined the complaints, but Nesbitt says problems are continuing, and a second Memphis whistleblower has brought more complaints to his office, Bloch said in the letters. The special counsel said he is “not prepared to accept” an FAA report on its resolution of the problems at Memphis “as the final report in this matter.”

Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin Scovel has been investigating the Memphis complaints, as well as “similar allegations involving intersecting runways at Detroit International Airport,” Bloch said.

Additionally, the special counsel has received similar disclosures from air traffic controllers at Newark Liberty International Airport. In a letter detailing those complaints, Bloch said FAA agreed to a recommendation by Scovel to stagger landings on some runways at Newark, to complete a safety analysis by May 1, and to implement any needed changes by July 1, the letter said.

But a whistleblower at Newark “contends that, to date, FAA has not completed the safety analysis or implemented any changes” involving the runways, Bloch’s letter said.

Bloch also said he is reluctant to accept an internal FAA investigation of the runway problems since FAA officials were found to have covered up safety problems at Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport a second time after the agency had been investigated by Scovel.

“We have had some concern in other referrals to (the Transportation Department) involving FAA conduct or facilities that there exists an inherent conflict of interest when an FAA component conducts an investigation of allegations of its own misconduct,” Bloch’s letter said.

“Given this disturbing history, it is difficult to rely on the findings of the local (FAA) investigators or (FAA) headquarters over an independent entity such as the (transportation department inspector general) that has an established track record of insisting on safety compliance,” the letter said.

The vast majority of go-arounds are routine and are caused by congested airspace around major airports. At some airports, though, air traffic controllers have warned about potentially dangerous procedures that point planes executing go-arounds into the path of planes taking off from intersecting runways.

In one incident at Las Vegas’ McCarron Airport in 2006, a United Airlines jet executing a go-around narrowly missed an American Airlines jet that was taking off from an intersecting runway. The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the near-collision on “deficient FAA procedures for separation of aircraft using converging runways.”