Breaking point: America's air traffic control (UPDATE)

Published: .
Updated: .

UPDATE: 3/23/17

FAA Regional Administrator Barry Cooper announced Columbus will receive the “NextGen” Air Traffic Control System. The system, meant to switch airplane navigation from ground-based radar to satellite-based navigation, is expected to be complete by early 2019.

The FAA will hold public hearings this summer to discuss changing flight patterns. Some neighborhoods may hear increased plane noise while others will hear less.

“The passenger who buys a ticket - everyone benefits because the whole system can be operated on a more efficient and on time manner,” said Cooper.

10 Investigates asked Cooper what has been done within the past year to address staffing shortages at air traffic control centers around the country highlighted in its previous stories. Cooper replied, “We understand where the shortages are going to be and where we're losing them and we are bringing them in as aggressively as we can.”

The July 2016 extension of the FAA which was signed into law included a number of improvements that were endorsed across the board. They included expedited hiring pools for experienced air traffic controllers (former military or those who went to school for ATC), as well as the ability for those who were previously disqualified under the biographical assessment to be reconsidered and those who aged out in the biographical assessment reform to receive an exemption to reapply,” said Jason Galanes, Communications Director for Aviation Subcommittee member Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ).

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Major airports face unprecedented air traffic controller shortage
  • 10 Investigates discovers FAA discipline reports exposing dangerous acts
  • Congress pressing for changes while claiming FAA “stonewalling”

FAILED GUIDANCE

"Fire up the cat" said one air traffic controller on a personal phone call, according to an NTSB federal investigation transcript obtained by the Associated Press.

"Oh, disgusting. Ugh, that thing was disgusting," replied another employee.

"Chinese people do it, so why can't we?" said the controller as a plane continued towards a tour helicopter over the Hudson River.

Those two aircraft collided with each other, leaving nine people dead in August 2009. NTSB Investigators said air traffic control distraction was a factor in the deadly crash.

THE DISCIPLINE FILES

10 Investigates made a federal records request to the FAA for discipline reports. They detail dangerous mistakes and negligence by air traffic controllers nationwide. Air traffic control mistakes include:

  • Allowing a medical flight to fly into the middle of a live-fire military exercise May 22, 2015. That incident resulted in a letter of reprimand.
  • Bringing a laptop into the tower to watch a video while an aircraft nearly crashed into a ground vehicle March 2, 2015. That incident resulted in a seven day suspension.
  • Adjusting settings on a radar screen as a practical joke May 11, 2015 resulted in a letter of reprimand.
  • Getting caught sleeping on the job twice in one month in February 2015 landed one controller a one day suspension -- less than the three days originally recommended by immediate supervisors.

Alarmingly, 10 Investigates found FAA supervisors gave a lesser punishment than what is recommended by guidelines and immediate supervisors. This is referred to as "mitigation." We did the math:

  • For careless work performance - including guiding aircraft towards another – 22% received a lesser punishment.
  • 33% of all conduct unbecoming cases, including fighting with fellow controllers, were mitigated.
  • Sleeping on the job had a 44% chance that an air traffic controller would get a lesser punishment than recommended.

JOHN GLENN COLUMBUS INTERNATIONAL

10 Investigates sought data indicating how many of the several hundred incidents reported by the FAA since 2010 happened at John Glenn Columbus International Airport. The FAA did not reveal the airports at which the disciplined controllers worked.

The only records specific to airports are held by NASA. The Aviation Safety Reporting System is a place where pilots can volunteer their problems with control towers. According to its website, the ASRS “collects, analyzes, and responds to voluntarily submitted aviation safety incident reports in order to lessen the likelihood of aviation accidents.”

"The pilot was seeing a thunderstorm dead ahead and the controller saw nothing and they were arguing over it," said Aviation Safety Institute’s Mike Overly after reading a report of a local incident.

CONTROLLERS ACCUSED OF NEGLIGENCE BEFORE

Anne Whiteman began working as an air traffic controller in Dallas in 1984. After decades on the job, Whiteman first alleged dangerous acts happened at the Dallas radar center in 1998. She went to the federal Office of Special Counsel as a whistleblower in 2004.

After federal investigators verified her claims, the Office of Special Counsel gave her the "Public Servant Award" for coming forward in 2005. In 2008, the FAA admitted that their managers blamed 62 air traffic control errors on pilots rather than admitting responsibility. The FAA made changes, creating independent review of incidents involving plane safety.

Based on her experience, 10 Investigates had Whiteman look at our new FAA database. Whiteman believes the new discipline problems appear similar to disturbing acts she once experienced.

"[There were] guys playing games with airplanes, cussing at each other, wanting to be #1 for the runway, pointing aircraft at one another. Getting angry with me, taking their airplane, pointing it at my airspace, not allowing me to get into their airspace," recalled Whiteman.

"I learned the FAA's term for removal, this may sound corny, they literally re-move them, because they have been moved before for wrongdoing," added Whiteman.

She sued the FAA in 2008 alleging lost wages and promotions for speaking out. She retired her tower position in 2009. Her case was settled by the US government outside of court.

CONTROL TOWERS UNDERSTAFFED

The FAA reports that flights across metro areas of New York, Atlanta, Chicago and Dallas face controllers working mandatory six-day weeks because of employee shortages since 2014. A specific example is Miami, where 58 controllers are doing the work of 91 positions.

Air Traffic Controllers were trained by both the academy and private colleges under the Collegiate Training Initiative program from 1989 to 2014. That's when the FAA decided to get rid of the private college training, moving all training in-house. The FAA says they did that to be able to control the quality of the trainees. But members of Congress tell 10 Investigates it's just about control.

They believe that change in 2014 caused the shortage, and may be creating a situation where the FAA finds it difficult to fire dangerous controllers.

"We don't know the correlations between some of these incidents and the forced overtime and the heavy work schedule of six-day weeks. Is there a correlation? The FAA just won't get into that. You’ve got to believe there's some correlation there,” said Rep. Frank LoBiondo, a Republican from New Jersey and chair of the House Subcommittee on Aviation.

GOING TO CONGRESS TO GET ANSWERS

"How long can this be kept up this way before we have some kind of a breaking point?” Rep. LoBiondo asked FAA officials at a June hearing of the House Aviation Subcommittee.

"Our controllers are proud professionals who are entrusted with our mission to run the safest, most efficient airspace system in the world," replied Teri Bristol, director for air traffic control operations for the FAA.

Since May, the FAA denied 10TV News requests for an interview.10 Investigates approached FAA director Bristol at the end of the June congressional hearing. An FAA employee blocked 10 Investigates, allowing the director to walk out of the hearing room.

At the next table in the congressional hearing room, Paul Rinaldi, president of the air traffic controllers association (NATCA) answered 10 Investigates questions about the severity of controllers sleeping on the job.

"I've never seen this list before. But I will tell you, first and foremost, the safety of the air traffic control system - the professionals - it's what we do every day. If there is an on-the spot correction, (discipline) is issued. Discipline is to correct something that was happening. I don't know about this (the list). We do have a process to do (and) that and make sure the controllers run the safest, most efficient system, in the world.”

Rinaldi walked away at that point before additional questions could be asked.

CALLS FOR CHANGE

“They have stonewalled us for a very long time," Rep. LoBiondo told 10 Investigates regarding the FAA. "They're doing things wrong. We don't want to come back and have to analyze an incident."

Congressional sources tell 10TV to expect a bill within three months they believe could tackle the air traffic control shortage. As for the discipline problems reported by 10 Investigates, those congressional sources say the FAA isn't giving them enough information right now to act and there's no immediate plans to deal with it.

Congress has not scheduled another hearing on the issue.

DOCUMENTS

FAA disciplinary database (via records request):

FLIGHT ACROSS AMERICA

Follow a flight from Los Angeles to Baltimore >>
Based on an actual flight plan. The pilots will talk to 28 controllers in 11 facilities.