WASHINGTON – An air traffic controller who nearly caused a midair collision last year has again been relieved of duty after putting two planes on converging courses. The case raises questions about whether employee rights are trumping safety at the Federal Aviation Administration.
Shortly after beginning the 7 p.m. work shift at the FAA radar facility at Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport in Mississippi on Feb. 29, controller Robert Beck ordered an Air Force C-130, a four-engine turboprop, to increase its altitude from 2,000 feet to 3,000 feet and to adjust its heading. That put the jet on a converging course with a twin-engine turboprop owned by the Homeland Security Department, according to an FAA employee with knowledge of the incident.
The controller whom Beck had relieved was standing in the back of the radar room while taking a break. He noticed the mistake and alerted Beck so he was able to separate the planes, avoiding a possible collision, said the employee with knowledge of the incident. The planes were just north of Gulfport at the time.
The employee wasn't authorized to speak publicly and commented only on condition of not being named. An FAA report on the incident, released Friday in response to an Associated Press request under the Freedom of Information Act, confirms most of the details, although it doesn't name the controller involved.
An FAA analysis of radar data shows the planes came within 2.59 miles laterally and 300 feet vertically of each other. Regulations require a minimum separation distance between planes of three miles laterally or 1,000 feet vertically.
Air traffic was light at the time, leaving Beck — who has a history of disciplinary problems — with no planes to handle except the two that he put on a converging course, the employee said.
Beck didn't return a telephone call from the AP seeking comment. The FAA report said the controller who made the error initially thought he'd been told the planes were at the same altitude, which is why he told the Air Force jet to go up to 3,000 feet.
The controller has been removed from directing air traffic and is "currently assigned to administrative duties while the FAA evaluates the individual's future status with the agency," the FAA said in a statement.
FAA officials are "committed to ensuring the safety of our nation's airspace for the traveling public, and we take seriously and investigate all reported infractions," the statement said. "We are working with (the National Air Traffic Controllers Association) to implement a professional standards pilot program that will help improve performance levels and conduct among employees."
The program, which is in place at 21 facilities so far, provides an opportunity for employees to address the performance or conduct of their peers, the FAA said. The agency employs about 15,600 controllers and has fired more than 130 since October 2009.
Ralph Humphrey, Beck's former boss, said he tried repeatedly last year to get the controller fired, but FAA officials in Washington ignored his requests.
"It's typical of trying to get rid of problem employees" at FAA, said Humphrey, who was the air traffic manager in Gulfport until he retired in January. "It is damn difficult to get rid of an employee for cause."
One reason is that union officials exploit complex employee protection rules even when controllers are unfit, Humphrey said.
Efforts to obtain comment from the controllers association were not immediately successful.
A mistake by Beck last June caused a regional airliner and a small plane to come within 300 feet of colliding with each other, the National Transportation Safety Board said in a report released in January. Investigators were told Beck had "a history of professional deficiencies that included taking shortcuts with phraseology and not complying with standard checklist procedures." He has been suspended several times within the last five years for tardiness, absenteeism and failure to report an arrest for driving under the influence, the report said.
Beck, a 23-year veteran, was ultimately disciplined by the FAA and required to receive professional re-training but only because he didn't disclose the June incident at the time it occurred, Humphrey said. It was only recently that Beck had been allowed to direct air traffic again without another controller sitting beside him to catch any errors, the former manager said.
Bill Voss, president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Va., said Beck's case underscores a larger problem of the FAA's difficulty of firing employees who are safety risks.
"It should never be easy to fire a person at any company, but when an FAA manager has legitimate concerns about safety there needs to be a streamlined process where they can work with the union in order to take timely action," Voss said.
FAA officials should put "a safety valve" in their contract so that managers can "pull a flag that says this isn't a normal situation, this is a safety problem," he said.
The FAA has recently introduced a new system for reporting mistakes that encourages controllers to disclose their errors. In return, the agency has agreed not to punish controllers as long as the mistakes aren't due to negligence.
However, David Conley, the president of the professional association that represents FAA managers, testified before a House committee last year that the new system is preventing managers from "using their experience and intuition to coach, mentor and train controllers toward correcting deficiencies."
The purpose of the new reporting program is to gain more information on errors so that safety trends can be analyzed and problems spotted ahead of time.
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