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FAA Covering Up New Batch of Newark Incidents in Which Planes Flew the Wrong Way Due to Agency Failures on Airspace Redesign Project - (11/19/2008)

CONTACT: NATCA Eastern Regional Vice President Phil Barbarello, 516-381-6424; NATCA National Office, Doug Church, 301-346-8245

NEWARK, N.J. – On Monday (Nov. 17), three more planes flew the wrong heading after departing Newark Liberty International Airport, including a plane operated by the Federal Aviation Administration. That brings the total number of departures that have flown the wrong way to more than 20 since the FAA implemented the first phase of its airspace redesign project last December.

Even more disturbing to local air traffic controllers is the fact that official FAA records only account for one of the three incidents from Monday.

“Since we started using these headings, the FAA has deliberately omitted many of these errors from its official records,” said Edward Kragh, NATCA facility representative at Newark.  “The agency never set up a process to properly evaluate if the new headings were working safely, and when we have brought problems to their attention, they often don’t even bother to make a record of it.” 

In a meeting with Congress last February, prompted by the initial problems with wrong turns, the FAA could not verify the number of errors because it kept no official record, despite a requirement to do so. After that meeting, and after controllers witnessed more wrong turns, the FAA reacted with anger toward its own employees, taking disciplinary action against whistleblowers and publicly warning other controllers to “find other work” if they thought the procedures were unsafe. 

After these latest incidents, the coercion took on a more subtle form, and controllers were asked if they wanted their supervisors to report the pilot errors. Said Kragh: “Once an employee has witnessed an error in the air traffic system, they can be fired the very first time they fail to disclose that information.” Controllers are required by regulation to report any mistakes made by either themselves or pilots. It is then the responsibility of the FAA official in charge, not the air traffic controller, to file the required report. “Asking a controller if they want you to file a report is incredibly improper and coercive,” says Kragh, “because they are complicit in a cover-up if they say no, but the implication is that they are ‘ratting out’ a pilot if they say yes.”

The FAA has recently expanded the procedure to nighttime use, prompting NATCA to ask for a suspension of the headings until the problem with wrong turns is solved.  “They implemented this in a slipshod manner with no evaluative process, and then they discipline, threaten, and coerce the employees responsible for pointing out the flaws,” Kragh said. “We the controllers have an insiders view of a function of the government that is rarely seen or understood by the public, and it sickens us to know that the whole safety culture of the FAA is being destroyed by the very public officials to whom it was entrusted.”

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