Whistleblower Gets Award for Exposing Air Traffic Games, Cover-up

Anne Whiteman has been recognized by the Office of Special Counsel for reporting safety problems in the control of aircraft at the Dallas/Ft. Worth air traffic facility and the agency’s failure to report safety problems.

The Office of Special Counsel investigates and prosecutes possible allegations of the Hatch Act for federal employees who may have engaged in improper political activity, whistleblower allegations of reprisal for disclosing information and it also protects reemployment rights of federal employee military veterans and reservists.

An award issued by the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) sounds at first like a cruel joke. Agencies like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission don’t give out awards for the “Most Deserving EEO Complainant of the Year” and the Merit Systems Protection Board does not award the “Most Original Affirmative Defense for 2005.”

Most agency representatives don’t want to be known to OSC because it usually means someone is in trouble or at least will require more work on a complex, touchy subject.

Upon further checking, a new OSC press release is genuine: the OSC is giving an award to a federal employee. It is the “Special Counsel’s Public Servant Award.” The award has been around since 2001 and doesn’t involve any money. It does recognize the “clients” of OSC by recognizing the contributions made by federal employees when they tell OSC about significant disclosures of violations, gross mismanagement or a substantial danger to public health and safety.

This year, the winner of the award is Anne Whiteman.

Whiteman has gotten considerable publicity recently for her disclosures regarding allegations that air traffic controllers and managers at the Dallas/Fort Worth Terminal Radar Approach Control covered up serious errors. (See “Payback in the Control Tower” and “Nintendo On Steroids.” )

Those who fly on a regular basis will no doubt be grateful for Whiteman’s actions. On the other hand, the underlying conduct which led to the investigation (and the subsequent award) will certainly scare some readers who must fly on a regular basis.

Whiteman cited two instances of serious incidents in the control facility that were not reported. In one instance, a controller put an aircraft within 300 feet and .53 miles apart, below the minimum separation of 1000 feet or three miles for aircraft within 40 miles of the airport.

In a second example, a controller allowed an aircraft to enter the airspace of Whiteman’s aircraft without prior approval. A loss of separation occurrerd and the aircraft were 900 feet apart. The other controller ignored her repeated requests to correct the separation and he took action only after being ordered to do so by a supervisor.

A Transporation Department report validated Whiteman’s allegations regarding cover-ups and concludes that her whistleblowing and the subsequent investigation exposed a management practice in place for seven years with resulted in under-reporting of serious operational errors.

As a result of the investigations, a number of personnel actions were taken. The FAA reassigned the facility quality assurance manager. The facility manager, operations managers and supervisors were placed on “Opportunity to Demonstrate Performance” status.

One controller was decertified and other controllers were given training and the equivalent of a performance improvement plan.

According to the report prepared by the Office of Special Counsel, Whiteman stated she did not think that putting personnel on a performance plan was sufficient disciplinary action due to the potential for loss of lives and aircraft as a result of the actions under investigation. Perhaps more importantly, she contended that the report failed to address the “reckless conduct by controllers endangering aircraft” and, instead, focused on reports and process for checking problems–not the recklessness and game playing conduct which she reported.

Moreover, she argued that sending people to training was not useful as the people engaging in these activities knew the rules and regulations and were intentionally getting around the rules. In effect, leaving the managers in place and not taking serious disciplinary action will not change the nature and culture of the agency and no real changes will occur.

Scott J. Bloch Remarks Re: Anne Whiteman

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47