US airport safety under microscope

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Alleged systemic covering-up of air traffic control errors by US Federal Aviation Administration employees at Dallas Fort Worth airport is to be investigated again by the Department of Transportation.

If information collected by the US Office of Special Counsel (OSC) from employees at the airport is substantiated, this will be the second time such practices have been uncovered there.

The OSC reports: "In 2004, air traffic controller Anne Whiteman disclosed that...FAA managers at the Dallas Fort Worth Terminal Radar Approach Control routinely covered up operational errors by not properly investigating and reporting them as required by FAA policy."

In a statement issued last week, the OSC says some controllers have again alleged their managers have "routinely" been identifying operational errors as pilot errors.

In some cases, says the agency, "the whistleblowers have improperly interpreted FAA orders and directives to cover up operational errors".

A DOT investigation the year after Whitman's revelations "resulted in the exposure of a seven-year management practice of under-reporting operational errors," says the OSC statement.

The FAA, says the agency, "considered the under-reporting to be very serious and had begun corrective actions."

The new allegations were made this year by Whiteman and others at the airport, says the OSC. "We had been led to believe that disclosures and the inspector general's final report had taken care of the problem," says US special counsel Scott Bloch.

"Instead matters got worse, and we believe the trend to blame pilots for what really are errors by air traffic controllers resulted in a push by FAA top management to reduce the number of operational errors." Bloch says he believes the problem may extend nationally.

Meanwhile, following a recent spate of near-collisions at US airports, a report by DOT watchdog, the Inspector General's Office (IGO), says the numbers of runway incursions in the USA have failed to reduce over the past five years despite action by the FAA.

Incident numbers had been climbing since 1998 and they peaked in 2001, says the IGO, but following a drop in runway incursions in financial year 2002, the number and rate of runway incursions have remained much the same, with some particularly dangerous events continuing to occur at four major international airports - Boston Logan, Chicago O'Hare, Los Angeles International and Philadelphia.