Online gambling, watching movies and taking naps on duty: What really goes on in New York air tower

13 May


Allegations of widespread misconduct by air-traffic controllers in the Ronkonkoma, New York air tower have come out in a Federal Aviation Administration investigation.

Staff allegedly took naps on blow up mattresses, gambled on the internet and watched movies while on shift, according to reports released this week by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an agency formed to help and protect whistle-blowers inside federal agencies.

Controllers reportedly showed a lack of respect for their superiors and the rules, swearing at managers and refusing to train new employees. Supervisors who did try to enforce the rules were threatened or had their property vandalised.

Coming from Fort Worth, Texas, Seeley said he was warned about the reputation at the new York Centre, which oversees higher-altitude traffic in the skies above parts of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland, but was still shocked by what he saw. 

At times when the young manager reported staff misdemenours he was told to forget about it and move on.

When photos from his Facebook page were posted around the facility a fellow FAA manager told him: ‘They are just trying to get under your skin’. She warned him that making a big deal out of it would only make it worse. 

In his complaint Seeley told how his car was scratched and a tire slashed in the weeks after he reported a controller who was using a personal laptop while on duty.

Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner, whose job is to protect government employees who expose mismanagement or wrongdoing from retaliation

Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner, whose job is to protect government employees who expose mismanagement or wrongdoing from retaliation

The final straw came when a message was left on a blackboard next to his desk reading: ‘Rat fink, watch ur back’, with an arrow pointing to his chair.

He complained to Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner, whose job is to protect government employees who expose mismanagement or wrongdoing from retaliation.

On May 8 she wrote a letter detailing the allegations made by Seeley and several other whistleblowers to the White House and Congress, criticising the FAA and Department of Transportation for being slow to respond to issues that could put passengers at risk. 

In a pattern of cases dating back to 2007, she said, employees had complained that the FAA refused to heed warnings about significant safety issues and then promised to correct the problems only when forced by oversight agencies. 

‘The FAA frequently delays taking necessary steps to address problems after they have been identified and even after the allegations are confirmed through an investigation,’ Lerner said at a press conference.

‘One of the things that concerned me was that there were so many requests for extensions. It was taking close to a year in many cases to get findings back from the agency. There did not seem to be the level of urgency that we thought many of these claims deserved.’

Among the issues raised in Seeley’s complaint was poor communication between controllers, which he said led to the near collision of three planes in January 2011.

Lerner said the FAA has one of the highest rates on whistleblower disclosures in the federal government and added that her investigators found that half of the 87 safety issues raised by whistleblowers were serious enough to be sent to the FAA for a response.

‘It is clear, given the number of Mr. Seeley’s allegations that were substantiated in this investigation, that significant corrective actions are required,’ the FAA’s internal investigation found.

Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said in an email statement: ‘We are concerned when we hear about rare examples that deviate from the high standards we set for ourselves and are determined to work with the FAA to correct any such issues.’

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