The Inspector General (IG) of the Transportation Department has found that managers at the Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) Tracon systematically covered up operational errors for seven years, thereby jeopardizing air traffic safety.
The DOT IG conducted an investigation after a whistleblower, an 18-year controller at DFW, alleged that air traffic controllers and management at the facility routinely covered up serious operational errors and deviations involving aircraft.
The whistleblower told the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) that many incidents involving aircraft flying too close to each other, on average once a month, were neither reported nor investigated, in violation of the FAA’s air traffic quality assurance order. She also described two specific incidents that should have been reported and provided data reflecting operational errors. (The OSC’s primary mission is to protect federal employees and applicants from prohibited personnel practices, especially reprisals for whistleblowing.)
The DOT IG investigated and substantiated the allegations. Its March report revealed an improper management practice in place for seven years that was responsible for underreporting and the failure to investigate operational errors. The IG concluded that the cover-ups, whether due to management policy or isolated events, represent safety deficiencies and undermine the public’s confidence in the ATC system.
Under FAA policy, employees are supposed to report potential errors to the supervisor or the controller-in-charge for further investigation. The IG found, however, that the language of the quality assurance order was ambiguous about the requirement for the use of playback equipment to investigate suspected operational errors.
Under DFW Tracon policy, investigation of suspected operational errors was limited to asking the controller involved whether separation had been lost. Under this honor system, if the controller responded in the negative, there was no further investigation.
“Only if the controller acknowledged a loss, or possible loss, of separation were the playback tools used to review the incident and determine whether an operational error occurred,” according to OSC. “This local policy ran counter to FAA national policy and [resulted] in significant underreporting of operational errors.”
After the investigation, DFW’s air traffic manager issued a memorandum directing the immediate use of playback tools to investigate all suspected operational errors. The FAA reassigned the facility quality assurance manager, and the facility manager, operations managers and supervisors were disciplined for failing to abide by FAA national policy on operational errors.
Individual controllers received training and were disciplined for failing to self-report errors, and one controller was decertified for committing a previously unreported operational error.