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U.S. Office of Special Counsel

1730 M Street, N.W., Suite 300

Washington, D.C. 20036-4505

U.S. OFFICE OF SPECIAL COUNSEL TRANSMITS REPORT OF INVESTIGATION IN RESPONSE TO WHISTLEBLOWER’S ALLEGATIONS OF SAFETY CONCERNS AT HOUSTON AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL CENTER


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - 4/6/00
CONTACT: JANE MCFARLAND
(202) 653-7984  

        The U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) today transmitted to President Clinton and the Congress, an investigative report from the Department of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), into whistleblower allegations of violations of law, rule, or regulation and a substantial and specific danger to public safety at the Houston Air Traffic Control Center (ARTCC), Houston, Texas. 

    The Transportation Department/FAA investigation was triggered by a disclosure made to the OSC by a Supervisory Air Traffic Control Specialist at the Houston ARTCC, who chose to remain anonymous. The whistleblower alleged that a former Air Traffic Control Manager established, and his successor continued, a policy of ignoring certain “operational errors,” which indicate the lack of a minimum separation distance between two aircraft. If only one incident occurred, the operational error would not be reported, according to the whistleblower. The whistleblower also alleged that Air Traffic Controllers were trained to modify their measurements of the computer generated tracks of the aircraft, called the National Track Analysis Program (NTAP), whenever the distances between the aircraft indicated one instance of a failed minimum separation distance. The implementation of such a policy would directly contradict FAA requirements for the investigation and reporting of all operational errors. 

    The OSC found that the whistleblower’s disclosures demonstrated a substantial likelihood of violations of law and specific danger to public safety, and forwarded the allegations to the Transportation Department, directing it to conduct an investigation and provide a written report. The OSC sought written clarification and further investigation from the Transportation Department, after receipt of the initial written report. The Transportation Department subsequently issued a supplemental report addressing the actions the FAA intended to take in response to the whistleblower’s allegations.

    The Transportation Department/FAA report found no credible evidence that ARTCC ignored operational errors, failed to report operational errors by manipulating NTAP data, or otherwise improperly classified operational errors. The FAA acknowledged that the investigation was hampered by the fact that the documentation necessary to review the whistleblower’s allegation had been largely destroyed in accordance with FAA’s record retention practices. 

    Notwithstanding its conclusions, the FAA stated that it has taken or initiated several measures to address the issues raised by the whistleblower’s allegations as recommended by OSC. Effective February 18, 2000, the FAA issued a restatement of FAA Order 7210.56B, Air Traffic Quality Assurance, to reiterate the importance of reporting all operational errors, without exception and without fear of reprisal. This restatement was distributed through a General Notice to all FAA air traffic employees nationwide. The FAA has completed training for all employees at the Houston ARTCC to ensure that they are aware of the requirement to report operational errors, without exception. Finally, the FAA Air Traffic Investigations Division has initiated development of a new training module for the agency’s Quality Assurance Course on NTAP, expected to be completed by May 1, 2000. The FAA anticipates that this mandatory training for all employees, using the NTAP data, will be completed within four to six months thereafter. 

    Among its other functions, the Office of Special Counsel provides federal employees with a secure channel for blowing the whistle on violations of law, rule, or regulation, gross mismanagement or waste of funds, an abuse of authority, or a substantial and specific danger to public health and safety. The OSC is empowered to require agencies to conduct investigations whenever it finds a substantial likelihood that a federal employee’s disclosures demonstrate the existence of one of these conditions, and to report back to the OSC its findings along with any corrective action taken. After the OSC reviews the report to ensure that it contains the necessary information and that its findings appear reasonable, the OSC transmits the report to the President and the Congress for further action, if appropriate.

    Copies of the Transportation Department/FAA report, the whistleblower’s comments, and Special Counsel Elaine Kaplan’s transmittal letter can be obtained by contacting the OSC.


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