Airline safety in question

Passengers go through a security checkpoint at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

WASHINGTON — In an unusual public rebuke, a government watchdog charged Tuesday that airline safety regulators have lagged in responding to urgent safety problems, including takeoff and landing procedures at one airport that caused some planes to nearly collide.

The Office of Special Counsel, which protects whistle-blowers, said controllers at one of the world’s busiest air traffic control facilities in Long Island, N.Y., slept in the control room at night, left shifts early, used personal electronic devices while on duty, ignored proper procedures and manipulated work schedules to gain overtime pay.

In another case, air traffic control procedures at the Detroit Metro Airport continue to bring planes that are taking off too close to planes that are aborting a landing, even though controllers there pointed out the problem to the Federal Aviation Administration’s management four years ago, the counsel’s office said.

Under pressure to resolve the problem at Detroit, the FAA has issued new instructions to pilots for aborted landings, but controllers say those instructions are often impossible to carry out.

At a news conference, Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner played a recording of a near collision there on Christmas Day 2009 between a Northwest Airlines plane and an American Eagle regional jet.

Lerner, whose job is to protect from retaliation government employees who expose mismanagement or wrongdoing, has sent the White House and Congress letters detailing seven FAA whistle-blower cases, including the Detroit case, in which safety allegations have been substantiated.

In five of the seven cases, the FAA has failed to follow through fully on promised corrections, her office said.

In one case, the FAA ordered that emergency medical helicopters be installed with light filters, mainly sheets of specially tinted glass, to prevent glare from instrument panels from interfering with night-vision equipment.

However, the installations in hundreds of helicopters were faulty, leaving pilots unable to see their instruments under certain lighting conditions, said Rand Foster, a safety inspector in FAA’s office in Renton, Wash., who first raised the issue in 2008.

The problem was so severe that at times that pilots couldn’t see oil leak warning lights that were flashing, he said.

“For defects to be there, and for us to know they are there, it’s just inexcusable for the patients and families and whoever is riding on them,” Foster said.

“That’s not the way the FAA should be doing business.”

But it took the “years-long persistence of one whistle-blower and two referrals from my office for FAA to acknowledge that its oversight was lacking” and begin safety corrections, Lerner said.

The cases show a pattern dating at least to 2007 in which employees have complained that the FAA refused to heed warnings, Lerner said.