A government investigator has accused the Federal Aviation Administration of covering up mistakes by air traffic controllers at one of the nation's busiest airports and sometimes shifting the blame to pilots.
The problems at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport included planes that flew too close together and a controller who did not notify a colleague when a plane was cleared for takeoff.
The allegations came from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an independent investigative agency responsible for protecting government whistle-blowers. The office's report renewed accusations that were made in 2005 but, according to the investigator, never fixed.
"The message needs to get out that we have a cavalier attitude about safety," special counsel Scott Bloch said Thursday in an interview, citing a "culture of laxness" at both the FAA and the air traffic controllers' union.
The FAA insisted that all controller errors are reported correctly and said inspectors had recently visited the airport.
Bloch warned that if safety violations were persistently ignored, "eventually you're going to have an air crash."
"Heads need to roll here," he said.
Bloch relied on interviews with two FAA whistle-blowers and other employees, and a review of radar data. He said the FAA manipulated the reporting of errors to whitewash its safety record and rewarded workers who had the fewest errors, which he said promoted financial gain over flight safety.
On Monday, Bloch sent a letter and the report to Transportation Secretary Mary Peters. Bloch directed the Transportation Department to investigate and make recommendations within 60 days.
The FAA said in a statement that it ensures and double-checks that all controller errors are correctly reported. The agency said federal inspectors visited the Dallas-Fort Worth facility within the past six months.
"The flying public can rest assured that the FAA thoroughly investigates every safety deviation, whether it was the result of controller or pilot error and closely tracks and addresses any pattern of errors," the FAA said.
The air traffic controllers' union has long complained about what it considers a shortage of workers at the airport. The union says there are 68 controllers and about 20 trainees in a center that should have 100 workers to manage flights in and out of Dallas-Fort Worth, Dallas Love Field and smaller airports.
Union spokesman Doug Church said any failure to accurately report errors is the fault of managers, not controllers. He said the FAA last month changed the way it classifies some events — letting planes get within 2.8 miles instead of three from each other, for example — to make safety statistics look better.
In his report, Bloch cited a problem two months ago in which a small American Eagle plane cleared for landing came within two miles of a large American Airlines Boeing 757 that was taking off.
In another case, a tower controller cleared an American Eagle flight for takeoff without telling another controller whose job was to release planes for takeoff. The first controller can be heard on tape acknowledging the error.
In both cases, the report said, supervisors determined that no mistakes were made — results that Bloch said seemed to violate FAA rules and were designed to protect DFW's safety record.
One of the whistle-blowers, a supervisor named Anne Whiteman, said managers routinely label controller errors as pilot mistakes. As a result, about 100 pilot errors have been reported at DFW since January, far more than in other years, she said.
The other whistle-blower remained anonymous.
Asked if he would be afraid to fly in or out of Dallas, Bloch said, "I don't think there needs to be hysteria, but there needs to be an appropriate level of concern."