FAA Whistleblowers: 5 Air Traffic Controllers Expose Current Dangers Of Flying

Heather Tooley

Some startling claims are being made by FAA whistleblowers. Five air traffic controllers are exposing the dangers of flying, which include a high risk of planes colliding or having accidents.

According to the Associated Press, a federal whistleblower protection officer is revealing what's behind the alarming information.

Apparently, wake turbulence is a very real issue when pilots and air traffic control centers -- or airline dispatchers -- attempt "to make changes to a flight plan by creating a second plan for the same flight." This was written in letters sent to the White House and Congress by the Office of Special Counsel, which is an independent agency.

FAA whistleblowers say that the "pre-departure clearance" computer software isn't capable of being thorough enough when an automated filing in its system fails to amend the original flight plans.

As the report describes, "[D]elivery of departure clearances isn't capable of flagging or identifying multiple plans that have been filed for the same flight."

This is risky since the change in flight plans may result in a "controller clearing a flight for departure based on an outdated plan, and the pilots flying a route not anticipated or planned for by the controller."

In order to solve the problem, controllers must take the painstaking process of reviewing flights plans, notifying pilots, and combing through paper strips that are passed among controllers and marked to monitor a plane's movements from taxing to takeoff. That information is then compared with the information on the paper strips to data shown on computers.

In December of 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration confirmed that it took the matter seriously and enlisted a working group to further analyze the issue, the counsel's office said in a statement.

The counsel's office has confirmed that this is still problematic after it was still present in April and July of this year.

The FAA whistleblowers who revealed this information are air traffic controllers at Detroit Metropolitan Airport in Romulus, Michigan. Although this comes from one airport, this impacts air traffic nationwide, Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner says.

"The investigation found that air traffic control facilities across the national airspace system are encountering this problem on a regular basis, and that it is significantly more common during inclement weather periods."

It's not just one change that may happen to a flight, but multiple ones during bad weather. Another drawback is that controllers have a larger than normal workload. Lerner says that the FAA whistleblowers in Detroit "deserve our deep gratitude." Their diligence plays a role in making flying a lot safer.

One of the air traffic controllers, Vincent Sugent, says that this has been a big problem for about seven or eight years. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association also pushed to address the problem with the agency, according to the report. The Federal Aviation Administration hasn't denied that there have been problems, but they were slow in making it a priority.

In Detroit, flight plans get misconstrued about twice a week. It was only recently that a small aircraft was cleared by controllers for takeoff using a flight plan indicating that it was to go west, but after takeoff, a second flight plan filed called for the plane to go east. The pilot went with the second filing.

Additionally, FAA whistleblowers revealed that other problems come into the picture, such as erroneous alerts and notifications. There are times the system displays revision alerts when no changes have been put in place, a flight is non-existent, or the plane has already taken off.

[Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images]