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Gov't watchdog urges stronger air safety oversight

In an unusual public rebuke, a government watchdog charged Tuesday that airline safety regulators have lagged in responding to urgent safety problems, including takeoff and landing procedures at one airport that caused some planes to nearly collide.

The Office of Special Counsel, which protects whistle-blowers, said controllers at one of the world's busiest air traffic control facilities in Long Island, N.Y., slept in the control room at night, left shifts early, used personal electronic devices while on duty, ignored proper procedures and manipulated work schedules to gain overtime pay.

In another case, air traffic control procedures at the Detroit Metro Airport continue to bring planes that are taking off too close to planes that are aborting a landing, even though controllers there pointed out the problem to the Federal Aviation Administration's management four years ago, the counsel's office said.

Under pressure to resolve the problem at Detroit, the FAA has issued new instructions to pilots for aborted landings. But controllers say those instructions are often impossible to carry out. Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner played for reporters at a news conference a recording of a near-collision there on Christmas Day 2009 between a Northwest Airlines plane and an American Eagle regional jet.

Lerner, whose job is to protect from retaliation government employees who expose mismanagement or wrongdoing, has sent the White House and Congress letters detailing seven FAA whistle-blower cases — including the Detroit case — in which safety allegations have been substantiated. In five of the seven cases, the FAA has failed to follow through fully on promised corrections, her office said.

In one case, the FAA ordered that emergency medical helicopters be installed with light filters — mainly sheets of specially tinted glass — to prevent glare from instrument panels from interfering with night-vision equipment. However, the installations in hundreds of helicopters were faulty, leaving pilots unable to see their instruments under certain lighting conditions, said Rand Foster, a safety inspector in FAA's office in Renton, Wash., who first raised the issue in 2008.

The problem was so severe that at times that pilots couldn't see oil leak warning lights that were flashing, he said in an interview with The Associated Press.

"For defects to be there, and for us to know they are there — it's just inexcusable for the patients and families and whoever is riding on them," Foster said. "That's not the way the FAA should be doing business."

But it took the "years-long persistence of one whistle-blower and two referrals from my office for FAA to acknowledge that its oversight was lacking" and begin safety corrections, Lerner said. She said she will ask the agency to report back in two months on its progress.

The cases show a pattern dating at least to 2007 in which employees have complained to the special counsel that the FAA refused to heed warnings about significant safety issues and then promised to correct the problems only when forced by oversight agencies, Lerner said. Even then, the FAA's handling of the complaints was satisfactory in only one of the seven cases, she said.

The cases "paint a picture of an agency with insufficient responsiveness given its critical public safety mission," Lerner said in her letter. At the news conference, the only one she has called in nearly a year on the job, Lerner stopped short of saying FAA's lapses mean public safety is at risk, but added that the agency failed to respond to serious safety allegations with the urgency they deserve.

The allegations about controllers at the Long Island center were made public last year by Evan Seeley, a controller who has since been transferred to another facility at his request. The FAA has since replaced most of the center's top managers.

Imprecise language used by a controller at the Long Island facility contributed to a near collision between an American Airlines jet with 259 people aboard and two Air Force transport planes southeast of New York City in January 2011.

While the FAA has taken action to correct problems at the Long Island control center, Lerner said it's likely that nearly identical allegations by another controller at an airport tower in Westchester County, N.Y., are also valid. Those allegations also include controllers sleeping on the job. The case has been referred by the special counsel to the Department of Transportation for further investigation, along with another case that Lerner declined to identify.

Those two cases are in addition to the seven cases Lerner detailed in her letter.

The Transportation Department, which includes the FAA, said in a statement that it will "promptly review, investigate and take aggressive action where necessary to ensure our high safety standards were met."

"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 whistleblower disclosures," the statement said.

Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said the union supports the FAA's current procedures for reporting safety problems. Over the last several years, the agency has instituted a system that encourages controllers to report their mistakes and other safety problems by promising not to take retaliatory action. The program's aim is to spot safety trends through more complete reporting and to discourage controllers from covering up errors.

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

The counsel's office has received 178 whistle-blower 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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Follow Joan Lowy at http://www.twitter.com/AP_Joan_Lowy

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