Blowing the whistle

April 29, 2009 9:32:09 PM PDT
There's been a huge increase in the number of air traffic controllers stepping forward to blow the whistle on safety problems at airports here in New York and around the country. The FAA says that's because its workers have a real commitment to safety.

But some of the whistle-blowers claim speaking out nearly cost them their careers.

"There are still wrong turns being made," Ray Adams, an air traffic controller at Newark, said.

Whether on a runway at Newark Liberty Airport or at Memphis International.

"Whistleblower. It's a tough term to be labeled with," Peter Nesbitt said.

Or Dallas.

"They refused to acknowledge there was a problem," Anne Whiteman said.

These three air traffic controllers risked their careers to protect the public from potential air disasters.

"We've had near mid-air collisions on two other procedures in Newark," Adams said.

In several Eyewitness News investigations, controller Ray Adams exposed runway safety issues at Newark Liberty Airport, including a change in take-off procedures that confused pilots and had planes turning in the wrong direction.

CONTROLLER: Are you familiar with departure heading?
PILOT: That's a negative, JB 521

"There are still wrong turns being made on the procedure," he said.

Controller Peter Nesbitt spoke out about Memphis International's use of unsafe landing operations during heavy air traffic.

"It was something that startled me. I felt compelled to say something. I had to do something about this unsafe practice," Nesbitt said.

Anne Whiteman says while working at radar control in Dallas, she could no longer keep quiet about managers trying to cover-up mistakes that led to near mid-air collisions.

"The management didn't care," she said. "The culture was such that they were able to get aircraft dangerously close to one another and no one was reporting it."

An Inspector General investigation later backed up her claims. It found "a lack of proper oversight within the FAA" led to a "cover up of air traffic control errors" at Dallas Radar Control.

"Why is no one acting on it? My report was final in November and some of the examples I provided were of planes within seconds of colliding and these events weren't reported and no one cares enough to take it any further," Whiteman said.

The FAA says it does care and is moving toward a new safety culture. The Agency has set up a voluntary reporting system where air traffic controllers can anonymously report errors. The FAA says when an event happens, the agency wants to know about it, wants to know why it happened and how to prevent it from happening again. A spokesman tells us the FAA encourages controllers to report problems without fear of retribution.

But the past experiences of these three controllers make them skeptical, so they have formed an alliance and are calling on Congress and the President to enact stronger whistleblower protections. Without it, they claim future whistleblowers will be silenced.

"I was ultimately removed from a position I loved in the radar room they literally locked me away so I couldn't witness the wrong-doing and then transferred me against my wishes," Whiteman explained.

The FAA says in the first year of its new reporting system, it has received 3-thousand reports.