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Disingenuous FAA Circumventing Principles of ATSAP Agreement That Aims to Protect Whistleblowing Controllers Who Bring Safety Concerns Forward - (6/12/2008)

CONTACT: Doug Church, 301-346-8245

WASHINGTON – On March 27, Acting FAA Administrator Bobby Sturgell joined NATCA President Patrick Forrey in signing an agreement to create an Air Traffic Safety Action Program (ATSAP), designed to foster a voluntary, cooperative, non-punitive environment for the open reporting of safety of flight concerns by FAA controllers. But the FAA is severely jeopardizing this agreement because Sturgell has refused to overrule the FAA’s human resources officials who have drawn up plans for how the agency can still punish and even fire controllers who bring safety concerns forward.

In subsequent weeks after the ATSAP agreement was signed, Sturgell and several of his deputies, including Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety Nicholas Sabatini, and, just yesterday, Air Traffic Organization Chief Operating Officer Hank Krakowski, touted the ATSAP agreement before an array of Congressional committees investigating safety lapses by the FAA. Sabatini and Sturgell were eager to check a box with Congress to address the long-held bipartisan Congressional criticism of the agency for failing to include controllers in the effort to enhance the FAA’s safety culture.

But there was only one very major glaring error in the FAA officials’ sworn testimony to Congress and statements to the media on ATSAP: They were highly misleading and disingenuous. The FAA has subverted the intent of the ATSAP by developing guidance on how to discipline controllers, despite this agreement, which is intended to encourage employees to bring forward safety concerns without fear of retaliation.

According to correspondence and official FAA documents obtained by NATCA, lower-level FAA management officials – before the ink of Sturgell’s signature on the ATSAP agreement was even dry – were working behind the scenes to develop written guidelines on how management officials could discipline employees despite the agreement.

When the agency imposed its work rules in September 2006, it also changed its policy to begin disciplining controllers for performance issues, such as mistakenly allowing planes to violate separation standards. But the ATSAP agreement itself stood in obvious contradiction to this policy, since the agreement encouraged employees to voluntarily identify performance issues.

Therefore, behind closed doors, the FAA immediately re-wrote its documents to provide a work-around to allow managers to discipline controllers, even when they came forward voluntarily under the ATSAP agreement.

“Controllers do not maliciously or intentionally make errors on the job, said Forrey. “Quite the contrary; our daily efforts to keep the system as safe as it is despite unprecedented pressures and fatigue-inducing working conditions mandated by the FAA show our dedication to safety above all.”

Concluded Forrey: “I’ll go a step further than just accusing the agency of being disingenuous here: The FAA intentionally misled Congress when it said it would implement an ATSAP program that protected controllers for coming forward to report safety concerns. We worked long and hard with the FAA on this agreement and our signing of it on March 27th marked a positive development. Little did we know that while we sat on the 10th floor of the FAA building and pledged our commitment to making this program work, another group of management lackeys just a few floors below were furiously working to come up with a way for the agency to continue disciplining controllers for mistakes made in these incidents which the FAA now expected us to bring forward voluntarily.”

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