Lerner: Controllers In New York Area Slept On Job, Watched TV

WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork/AP) — If you’re a frequent flyer, you may worry about delays, turbulence, security breaches, etc.

But do you ever worry that air traffic controllers are asleep on the job? Perhaps you should.

In a letter sent to the White House and Congress Tuesday, a government watchdog group said that controllers in one of the busiest centers in New York slept on the job, watched movies while on duty and often violated safety rules.

The Federal Aviation Administration has also repeatedly dragged its feet in responding to whistleblower complaints about safety problems and stronger oversight of air safety is needed, the government watchdog group said.

Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner, whose job is to protect from retaliation government employees who expose mismanagement or wrongdoing, detailed seven FAA whistleblower cases in letters to the White House and Congress. The cases, Lerner said, “paint a picture of an agency with insufficient responsiveness given its critical public safety mission.”

Some of the cases are years old, but Lerner said air traffic controllers and other FAA whistleblowers continued to point out safety problems after making their initial allegations because the agency failed to take promised actions to correct the problems. Other cases are more recent.

For example, Lerner said an investigation has confirmed most of the complaints made last year by Evan Seeley, a controller formerly assigned to one of the world’s busiest air traffic control centers on Long Island, N.Y. Among the allegations that were substantiated were that controllers slept in the control room at night, left shifts early, used personal electronic devices while on duty, used improper air traffic control procedures and engaged in work stoppages to gain overtime pay.

Among the other substantiated complaints, the special counsel said, is that planes departing Teterboro Airport in New Jersey routinely got too close to jets flying to Newark Liberty International Airport.

While the FAA has taken action to correct those problems, Lerner said another controller has recently made nearly identical allegations about a different air traffic control facility which she didn’t identify.

The FAA has one of the highest rates of whistle-blower filings per employee of any government agency, Lerner said.

The counsel’s office has received 178 whistleblower disclosures from FAA employees since 2007, 89 of which related to aviation safety. Forty-four cases were referred to the Transportation Department for investigation, and all but five were substantiated.

Are you surprised by the watchdog group’s findings? Sound off below.

(TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)