A program that lets air traffic controllers voluntarily report safety concerns without fear of reprisals has come under criticism from the Transportation Department’s inspector general, who told Congress that “significant improvement” is needed to find the root causes of safety risks.
The FAA modeled the Air Traffic Safety Action Program (Atsap) on another voluntary safety reporting system used by selected airlines. Known as the Aviation Safety Action Program (Asap), that mechanism promises airline employees that no punitive or disciplinary actions will be taken as a result of reporting errors that could affect safety, provided those errors are not the result of gross negligence or illegal activity.
Once a three-member event review committee (ERC) accepts a report, the FAA cannot take disciplinary action against the employee involved. However, the ERC can recommend that the employee undergo enhanced training. ERC decisions are made by consensus, meaning that all three members of the ERC must agree that the resolution of the event falls within their range of acceptable solutions.
“We found that although the FAA completed Atsap implementation at all ATC facilities in 2010, the agency will need to make significant improvements before Atsap [can] effectively identify and address the root causes of safety risks,” the report said.
“For example, due to Atsap provisions designed to protect controller confidentiality, much of the Atsap data that the FAA collects is not validated, raising questions about the effectiveness of these data for analyzing safety trends,” the report said. “We also found that the FAA’s oversight of Atsap lacks effective management controls.”
The FAA does not have a formal process to review the effectiveness of decisions made by the program’s review committees to ensure that report acceptance criteria are followed rigorously and that conduct issues are dealt with appropriately. Failure to address potential deficiencies in transparency and accountability may lead to the perception that Atsap is an amnesty program in which reports are automatically accepted, regardless of whether or not they qualify under the program’s guidelines, the IG said.
“The intent of the reporting program is to improve aviation safety, not to provide amnesty to controllers who like to watch movies or take a nap while on the job,” said House Transportation Committee chairman John Mica (R-Fla.). “Controllers must conduct themselves in a professional manner.”
The IG found that the ERCs responsible for reviewing submitted Atsap cases are accepting reports regarding controller conduct, rather than just operational errors. Atsap reports filed by controllers caught watching a personal video player while on duty and sleeping while on duty were accepted.
In addition, the IG found that the ERCs do not always follow the requirements in the agreement between the FAA and National Air Traffic Controllers Association and that the FAA is not enforcing all parts of the agreement.
The FAA initiated Atsap in July 2008 as a voluntary, non-punitive reporting program to encourage FAA air traffic controllers to report safety events and concerns. The DOT IG’s audit report was requested by members of Congress.