Why FAA Complaints?
by Robert Poole
Issue 208 – July 25, 2012
The media were recently full of stories about the federal whistle-blower agency—the Office of Special Counsel—sending a report to the White House calling attention to the very high prevalence of whistle-blower complaints filed by employees of the FAA. Whereas the average federal agency generates about five such complaints per year, in the years since 2007 the FAA has averaged 17 per year.
Moreover, OSC’s report to the White House expressed concern about “a pattern of insufficient responses by the FAA”—either taking a very long time to take corrective action or making insufficient changes. “The FAA frequently delays taking necessary steps to address problems after they have been identified and even after the allegations have been confirmed through an investigation,” said Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner, in the Washington Post’s story on the issue.
The OSC’s report focused on seven specific cases to illustrate its point. Five of the seven concerned air traffic control, including controller misbehavior at New York Center, unsafe routing of planes departing from Teterboro, inconsistent rules for landings on parallel runways at Detroit, and unauthorized deviations of foreign aircraft into U.S. airspace near Puerto Rico.
What accounts for the FAA’s far higher extent of whistle-blower complaints, and its record of late and sometimes inadequate responses? The OSC report did not attempt to answer that question, and both it and the media reports all called for tougher oversight, the usual conventional wisdom. But I think at least part of the answer is due to the FAA’s built-in conflict between being the aviation safety regulator and the operator of the ATC system.
Instead of being regulated at arm’s length by the safety regulator (as are airlines, private pilots, etc.), the ATC system is part of the FAA family. That fact, I believe, has led to an organizational culture in which, for example, airline pilot fatigue got far more attention than the equally serious problem of controller fatigue.
The OSC report is yet another wake-up call to Congress and the U.S. DOT that there is a structural problem at the FAA. It’s a structural problem that nearly all other developed countries have addressed in recent decades by separating their ATC system from their aviation safety regulator.
The separated ATC entities are now known as ANSPs—air navigation service providers. They are now regulated for safety at arm’s length, just like airlines, business jets, airframe producers, engine producers, airports, and overhaul facilities. Organizational separation of ATC from aviation safety regulation is also prescribed by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), to which the United States is a signatory.
This reform is long overdue. Maybe the next Congress will take it seriously.
Robert Poole is editor of the Reason Foundation’s ATC Reform News, where this first appeared.