US whistleblower scheme needs overhaul

Significant improvements are needed to make the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) voluntary system for reporting air traffic controller errors effective in identifying and addressing aviation safety risks.

The programme encourages greater reporting of operational mistakes by promising not to punish controllers who disclose errors within 24 hours of an incident as long as the errors are not the result of gross negligence in an effort to use data gathered to better spot safety trends and take corrective action.

But a new audit report issued by the US Inspector General of the Department of Transportation (IG) cites instances of improper controller conduct, such as falling asleep or watching movies on the job, reported under the programme.

Such examples of misconduct with the controller in effect receiving amnesty for the misconduct should not be permitted according to Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica who, with Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Tom Petri, requested the audit of the Air Traffic Safety Action Programme (ATSAP).

“The intent of the reporting programme is to improve aviation safety, not to provide amnesty to controllers who like to watch movies or take a nap while on the job,” Mica said. “Controllers must conduct themselves in a professional manner.”

“This programme initiated by the FAA in July 2008 is a voluntary, non-punitive reporting programme to encourage FAA air traffic controllers to report safety events and concerns,” Mica added. “Although the FAA and National Air Traffic Control Association have taken steps to implement a productive voluntary reporting programme, the IG found the FAA needs to make significant improvements to the programme.”

“The ATSAP programme plays an important role in identifying risks and allowing the FAA to address safety concerns identified,” Petri said. “We want to be sure that we are aware of issues and errors that occur so corrective steps can be implemented. However, we need to be sure we are getting all the benefits that we can from ATSAP and that all available measures are taken to alleviate identified safety concerns. FAA should take seriously the recommendations by the IG and make needed reforms to strengthen the programme, and we will be working with the agency to ensure that this happens.”

Under the ATSAP programme there is no punitive or disciplinary action taken for operational errors reported by controllers within 24 hours, as long as the errors are not the result of ‘gross negligence of illegal activity’.

According to the IG, the FAA is in the process of transitioning ATSAP to a sole source/non-sole source system similar to the airlines’ voluntary reporting programme. However, the FAA/NATCA agreement is much more generous than the airline agreements in regard to what qualifies as ‘sole-source’.

In the airline agreements, a sole-source report is any report where all evidence of the event available comes from the voluntary disclosure; however, the agreement between FAA and NATCA allows any operational error or deviation committed by a controller to be considered sole-source. Since sole-source reports are exempt from the requirement that all voluntary reports must be submitted within 24 hours of learning of the event, controllers apparently can file a report for any operational error or deviation at any time, up to weeks after the event and even when the FAA learned of the error or deviation from other sources.

The Inspector General, noting the programme’s potential to improve safety, highlighted additional significant problems in the programme’s implementation.

For example , it found that the Event Review Committees (ERCs) responsible for reviewing submitted ATSAPs are accepting reports regarding controller conduct, rather than just operational errors. ATSAPs filed by controllers caught watching a personal video player while on duty and sleeping while on duty were accepted. Furthermore, there is no review by the FAA of decisions made by ERC’s to determine if they are in fact following the specifics of the programme.

In addition, the IG found that the ERCs do not always follow the requirements in the agreement between the FAA and National Air Traffic Control Association (NATCA), and that the FAA is not enforcing all parts of the agreement.

The IG found that the FAA had only recently begun developing processes to analyse safety data even though much of this data is not validated. The programme structure also is set up in such a way that management at air traffic facilities often will not be informed of safety errors that are going on at their own facilities.

“Voluntary reporting programmes have played a role in achieving the high level of safety enjoyed by US civil aviation today,” Mica added. “However, the IG’s report reminds us that such programmes must be legitimate sources of safety information, and not amnesty programmes. The FAA and NATCA must work together to address the problems outlined in the IG’s report, including better transparency, improved data analysis, and better adherence to the agreed upon programme structure, including what types of reports can be accepted into the programme.”

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association disagreed with the inspector general’s conclusions, saying the programme has identified and solved local and systemic safety problems.

“While there is always room for improvement, the … programme is a major leap forward,” the union said in a statement. “It has boosted the number of reports of problems filed with federal authorities and increased the resolution rate of safety issues around the country. This is a direct result of the robust and comprehensive data analysis processes currently in place.”

A three-member committee consisting of two FAA officials and a union official have to reach a unanimous decision on the design and implementation of the programme and therefore which error reports to into it.

Read More: Investigate spike in controller errors: DoT

Posted in CAAs/ANSPs, News, Operations, Reports, Safety

One Response to US whistleblower scheme needs overhaul

  1. SM says:

    My comments are made from the view of an experienced Federal sector labor specialist and arbitrator. The issue is quite simple. Performance requirements and discipline of employees are reserved management rights under 5 USC 7106, and are not subject to negotiation with any Federal union. Management needs to correct this problem immediately. Any agreement that impinges on this right is unlawful and unenforceable.