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Authorities Investigate Alleged Cover-Up of Chicago Air-Traffic Control Errors

June 26, 2008

CHICAGO _ Managers at an FAA radar facility handling flights into and out of Chicago’s airports are under investigation over allegations they covered up air-traffic control errors, authorities said Wednesday.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s inspector general’s office confirmed the probe focuses on if supervisors at the Federal Aviation Administration radar facility in Elgin, Ill., underreported air-safety violations by controllers. Investigators are looking into whether the controller errors were instead blamed on pilots or simply ignored, officials said.

The controller errors under investigation involved failures to precisely maintain the required spacing between airplanes taking off or landing at O’Hare International Airport, Midway Airport and smaller area airports.

“We are still doing field work as part of an ongoing audit of the FAA’s process for investigating and reporting operational errors,” said Madeline Chulumovich, spokeswoman for the transportation department’s inspector general.

She confirmed an investigation at the Elgin radar facility was under way and that several other FAA facilities across the country would also be checked out, but she declined to release preliminary findings. The probe began in Texas.

Controller sources at the Elgin facility downplayed the seriousness of the air-traffic infractions allegedly covered up, but it’s too early to know where the investigation might lead.

Independent aviation-safety experts warned that acceptance of even minor lapses _ for instance, allowing even a minuscule change in the mandated spacing between planes _ could foster a dangerously lax attitude toward safety.

Even if the violations didn’t directly impact the safety of air travelers, the outside experts said, the alleged cover-up still raises troubling questions about why FAA officials didn’t accurately report the incidents.

“You have to be concerned that the culture in the FAA appears to be conducive to managers deliberately failing to report errors,” said Daniel Petree, a professor and dean of the college of business at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.

An inspector general investigator who reviewed radar tapes at the Elgin facility last week told officials there that he found at least three suspicious incidents since 2006 in which FAA supervisors blamed controller errors on pilots, said David Stock, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association at the facility.

FAA officials declined to answer questions about the investigation.

The controllers union is frequently at odds with FAA supervisors but defended management at the facility over the latest allegations.

One of the violations had gone unnoticed and the other two were extremely minor and had no impact on safety, Stock said.

No controllers had been implicated in the investigation thus far, he said.

Aircraft that should have been spaced 3 miles apart horizontally or 1,000 feet vertically strayed slightly from those prescribed separations, but no danger ever existed, Stock said.

Stock blamed the FAA hierarchy in Washington, D.C., for allowing an institutional lack of concern to permeate the agency’s management ranks.

“FAA management in Washington has the technology to know about every loss of separation in every facility across the country as soon as it occurs,” Stock said. “To blame local managers for ‘covering up’ losses of separation is the height of hypocrisy.

“I believe there are people in Washington who ignore incidents until they have their face rubbed in it by the inspector general,” he said. “If that’s not a cover-up, I’m not sure what is.”

The Elgin FAA facility handles aircraft within a 40-mile radius of O’Hare and up to 13,000 feet in altitude.

In 2007, the facility reported 40 errors by controllers and another 20 by pilots, according to the FAA. Thus far this year, the facility has reported 24 errors by controllers and nine by pilots.

Late last year Congress asked the inspector general to broaden its probe after it was determined that FAA managers in Dallas-Ft. Worth routinely misclassified blame when planes flew too closely together.

The FAA in April acknowledged it had mishandled whistle-blower reports that air-traffic control managers in Dallas-Ft. Worth systematically covered up errors to boost the reported performance of the Texas radar facility.

The FAA said managers misattributed more than 60 air-traffic control errors to pilots or dismissed them as “non-events” between 2005 and 2007. None of the incidents resulted in crashes.

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(c) 2008, Chicago Tribune.

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