Is FAA, ATC feud jeopardizing safety?

February 4, 2009 6:13:34 PM PST
Is airline passenger safety being compromised because of feuding between the FAA and the Air Traffic Controllers union? There is new evidence that it's happening.

A controller at Newark who claims he was trying to protect pilots and passengers has been reprimanded for disobeying orders.

The Investigators' Jim Hoffer has an exclusive report.

A few months ago, the FAA redesigned the airspace at Newark as a way to decrease departure delays by allowing more planes to take off more quickly.

But an air traffic controller who has spoken out against these plans says the FAA is now trying to silence him by threatening suspension or firing.

The FAA says the redesign of airspace enhances safety and efficiency at Newark Airport, one of the nation's busiest. It says air traffic controllers helped in the redesign plans. But this controller, an outspoken union representative at Newark tower, sees big problems in the new flight patterns.

"What we're finding is the pilots do not understand what is happening when they get on the runway at Newark Airport," air traffic controller Ray Adams said.

Two months ago, Adams was on duty at Newark tower and was told by his supervisor to direct departing planes to use the new flight pattern.

Adams: "Are you familiar with departure headings, dispersal headings?" Pilot: "That's negative." Adams: "Roger, negative."

Because the new departure deviated from the standard procedure, Adams says he wanted to make sure pilots clearly understood their directions before takeoff.

Adams: "Are you familiar with the departure headings?" Pilot: "I'm not sure that we are."

The taped communication of Adams clearly shows some pilots are confused about the departure pattern, also known as headings.

Pilot: "Can we get some information on this heading? What's going on with the departure?" Adams: "OK, someone is asking about the headings."

At one point, the FAA supervisor warns Adams to stop asking pilots if they understand the new procedure. And that's when Adams loses his cool.

Adams: "I am issuing the headings. Shut the (bleep) up. The supervisor advised me not to give you any information about the headings."

Weeks later, Adams received a letter of reprimand for failure to carry out orders and use of abusive language.

"It's a first step to a suspension or a removal action against a controller," Adams said. "This is how the FAA tries to lever you into being quiet."

The FAA insists that the new departure procedures are a safe way to reduce delays at Newark and are backed up by nearly a decade of evaluation and studies, including considerable input from air traffic controllers. But the spokesperson declined to comment on the disciplinary action. Pilots, however, who listened to the taped tower communications, say the discipline was not warranted.

Hoffer: "Did the controller do anything wrong here?" Captain Bruce Meyer, retired commercial airline pilot: "Absolutely not. He acted exactly how I would like a controller to act in the circumstances."

Meyer spent decades in the cockpit of commercial airlines in and out of Newark.

Hoffer: "Are they trying to intimidate him? Are they trying tosilence him?" Meyer: "It can have no other effect than have a chilling effect on a controller's exercise of their judgement and their experience in the operation of their duties."

The FAA says there is nothing unusual about the new departure procedures, calling them "a routine air traffic control function."