Complacency: Laziness, or Learned?

After a recent incident gained media attention, there were accusations that the FAA and its air traffic controllers had grown complacent in regards to safety.

The latest incident involved a veteran controller at New York’s JFK airport, who had his children relay some air traffic clearances on the radio frequency.

The JFK incident was the third in a string of recent air traffic control related incidents that made the headlines, including last summer’s mid-air collision near Teterboro airport in New Jersey of two VFR aircraft, as well as the incident last fall where Northwest 188 lost contact with air traffic control and eventually overflew its destination.

Always ready to put on the proper face to the media, the top levels of FAA management reacted to the latest incident with shock and outrage:

“This lapse in judgment not only violated FAA’s own policies but common sense standards for professional conduct. These kinds of distractions are totally unacceptable,” administrator Randy Babbitt said in the statement.

…(violations) of FAA’s own policies…“?  “…standards for professional conduct…“?  Really, Mr. Babbitt?!

Let’s examine some facts about the three incidents:

In the case of the mid air collision the supervisor was on the clock but out of the facility running personal errands, which were apparently more important than his job.  In the case of Northwest 188, several managers decided to simply ignore orders.  And in the latest case, one or more supervisors apparently allowed an employee on two different days to let his children talk to airplanes on the radios.

In each and every incident, there was an FAA manager involved that wasn’t following the rules.  Do you think that’s just a coincidence?

The managers are the people supposed to be ensuring that the workers are following the rules, and what are they doing?  They’re breaking the rules themselves!

Does anyone remember this video?

The conduct of some of those managers is a violation of FAA Human Resources Policy which states in part (my emphasis):

An employee’s conduct on the job has a direct bearing on the proper and effective accomplishment of official duties and responsibilities. Employees are expected to approach their duties in a professional and business like manner and maintain such an attitude throughout the workday. It is also expected that employees will maintain a professional decorum at all times while in a temporary duty travel status or otherwise away from their regularly assigned post of duty, such as telecommuting, whether at home or at a telecommuting site, or attending training.

So much for following the rules and the higher standard FAA managers are allegedly held to.

Do you think a controller or two might have noticed managers in those cases intentionally violating FAA policies and acting unprofessionally?  Do you think they didn’t notice nothing happened to any of them for doing so?

Isn’t this called, “setting an example”?

Last year I wrote about the FAA’s “dumb luck” approach to safety, including the “customer service initiative” that ultimately led to two FAA safety inspectors turning into whistle-blowers when FAA managers ignored their concerns about problems with Southwest Airlines’ maintenance.

It was clear then that the FAA was only concerned about safety when the problems hit the headlines.

Then the FAA decided to reclassify air traffic control errors, turning many errors into non-events (and making it appear to the flying public we were having fewer errors).

They created a safety program (ATSAP) that allows controllers to anonymously report errors without fear of punishment, but which in turn also masks and allows the FAA to ignore many systemic problems.

Currently the FAA is testing its ERAM software, even with its many known bugs, on live air traffic.

And almost every time something makes it into the news that involves the FAA, an FAA spokesman quickly says, “Safety was never compromised.”

The FAA claims it’s an organization that’s passionate about safety, but there’s little to indicate it’s actually doing much to improve safety at all.  If anything it’s degrading safety more often than not.  It says one thing but does another.

So between managers not following FAA rules, and the many changes to FAA policies and procedures regarding air traffic safety and error reporting, should it really be a surprise that controllers may have gotten complacent?

And if they are complacent, aren’t they really just following direction and examples from the FAA management team?

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