(Note that for reasons that should become clear below this article wasn’t originally published back in 2012 when I wrote it. It has recently been edited somewhat as well.)
I started writing about some of my air traffic experiences back in 2007.
At that time the FAA had imposed work rules on the controller workforce, and it was pretty miserable going into work and discovering that in spite of the FAA wanting to be “large and in charge”, managed to time and time prove how incompetent they really were.
To borrow a phrase, they kept proving that they “couldn’t manage their way out of a paper bag.”
It was a very frustrating time to be working as an air traffic controller. To deal with that frustration a few controllers opted to start writing about what was going on at the FAA.
However, the FAA embeds language in their employee conduct policy that forbids employees from making statements that might diminish public trust in the air traffic system. The prevailing attitude is that controllers can’t write about or talk about what goes on behind the FAA’s very tightly closed doors.
In other words, at the very least the FAA doesn’t believe that controllers don’t have freedom of speech when it comes to telling others about what they do, especially if it reflects poorly on the FAA, despite the fact that it’s not hard to find instances of the FAA not following its own orders, or otherwise ignoring safety concerns.
Any notions the FAA has of keeping its employees completely silent about safety concerns are mitigated through The Whistleblower Act of 1989, which makes it illegal for the government to take reprisals against employees who discloses information that they believe to ” a violation of a law, rule or regulation; gross mismanagement; gross waste of funds; an abuse of authority; or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.”
The FAA also has internal programs such as the Air Traffic Safety Program (ATSAP), that give controllers protection in disclosing safety concerns.
This is the FAA’s own policy statement:
Our continuing mission is to provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world.
We strive to reach the next level of safety, efficiency, environmental responsibility and global leadership. We are accountable to the American public and our stakeholders.
- Safety is our passion. We work so all air and space travelers arrive safely at their destinations.
- Excellence is our promise. We seek results that embody professionalism, transparency and accountability.
- Integrity is our touchstone. We perform our duties honestly, with moral soundness, and with the highest level of ethics.
- People are our strength. Our success depends on the respect, diversity, collaboration, and commitment of our workforce.
- Innovation is our signature. We foster creativity and vision to provide solutions beyond today’s boundaries.
Despite its own policy and mission statements and claims to be a “safety culture”, instead of making all efforts to ensure the largest airspace system in the world is as safe as possible, the FAA intimidates its employees into remaining silent about safety concerns’ with threats of discipline as well as systematically hiding safety-related problems and reports by designating them “sensitive” which prevents them from being viewed by the public.
The air traffic controllers union, NATCA, also advocates “Safety Above All”. After many years of trying to prevent controllers from being disciplined for having errors, the union managed to persuade the FAA to take steps towards the safety culture they talk about.
It was my experience that almost exclusively it was the union and the controllers who had to press the FAA for safety changes. And the FAA would reflexively resist changes because of the expense.
That’s why I was surprised on Thursday, September 13, 2012, when I discovered that the national office of my union was concerned about what I was writing about. My blog had been linked to by a couple of other online articles in reference to the state of the FAA’s ERAM program.
Specifically, I had written that I believed that both the FAA and NATCA had let political considerations override safety concerns with the new ERAM computer system.
The union was concerned about an online article that linked to this blog (in which I was erroneously referred to as “George”). That article stated in part:
Scouting around the web for more information, I came across this blog by an anonymous veteran En Route Center controller by the name of George who, at least as of June, was claiming that from his personal experience ERAM was still buggy and barely ready for prime time.
The blogger also made an interesting argument that “both the FAA and NATCA have too much political capital at stake with ERAM to be impartial with respect to the project.” He argues that in the past, NATCA could be critical of ERAM because the FAA didn’t desire controller input, but now that it is a partner with the FAA, NATCA has to be shall we say, more circumspect with its criticism. The Bloomberg article, similarly notes that with the settlement of a labor dispute three years ago, “[c]ontrollers and the FAA now have an ‘unheard of’ level of collaboration.”
So, we apparently have a Goldilocks situation where the FAA and NATCA are all smiles about ERAM’s current state, the DOT IG is still frowning, and the DOT CIO and the anonymous NATCA controller are somewhere in the pursed-lips middle.
While I’m not naive enough to not recognize the political tightrope NATCA national walks between the government and its membership, the fact they were trying to figure out who I was and making veiled threats towards me meant I had struck a nerve.
They couldn’t do anything about a writer from outside the organization. But their message was clear; they weren’t trying to protect me. They were going to put the squeeze on me and try to prevent me from expressing my opinion – just like the FAA did. So now my union was initiating a witch hunt for a dissenter within its ranks.
While I was well aware that the FAA would likely try to discipline me for what I was writing I didn’t believe I had reason to fear my union as well. Until now.
I’m sure the union’s national office would assert they had the “big picture” in mind; that they knew better than I. But my fellow controllers and I were being forced to work with equipment that was faulty.
So I would counter that ERAM and the safety of the nation’s air traffic system was the big picture, and knowingly and willingly being part of a degrading safety because of politics isn’t something I would accept.
Much like the FAA with its fancy slogans and talk about safety in the end the union’s national office said one thing but did another. And ultimately the air traffic controllers in the field were left holding the (smelly) bag that was ERAM.
It clearly shows that safety always takes a back seat to politics.
Note 2016: I’ll add that my local didn’t sell me down the river and out me to NATCA national.
And while I wasn’t happy about the situation I recognized both the political and personal implications and opted to un-publish this blog back in 2012.
It has remained down since now when I decided to re-publish the original entries as I believe it no longer has the ramifications that it may have had years ago.
I restored the blog to preserve my personal accounting and record of the train-wreck that was/is? the ERAM project as well as other notable things I experienced while working for the FAA.