Thursday, February 23, 2012

FOX 5 INVESTIGATIVE REPORT: Air Traffic Controllers Caught On Video

Updated: Thursday, 23 Feb 2012, 10:04 PM EST
Published : Thursday, 23 Feb 2012, 10:04 PM EST


MYFOXNY.COM - Westchester County Airport is a growing destination for seven different commercial airlines, from JetBlue to U.S. Airways and its one of the busiest airports in the country serving the corporate world.

Seven days a week, from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., air traffic controllers guide flights serving nearly 2 million passengers a year.

Sometimes 100 planes take off and land in an hour.

A source, that Fox 5 News is not identifying, says, "I'm upset and extremely concerned with things taking place at Westchester tower."

Risking a career or worse, the Westchester controller that is Fox 5's informant, documented many instances where fellow controllers had their eyes anywhere but on air traffic.

We're talking about sleeping, reading, texting.

"It poses an extreme threat to public safety. If someone's not paying attention 100%, attention, between separating arriving and departing air traffic, you could have a near miss or worse."

The video and photos provided to Fox 5 News appear to show up to ten air traffic controllers at Westchester Airport, where the job is all about watchfulness.

They are supposed to be scanning the skies, bringing incoming flights in safely and sending departing airplanes off without incident but some look more like dozing passengers. They are apparently sleeping in the control tower while on duty, others reading, or playing with their cell phones, or working their laptops.

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules stipulate that "cellphones must be in the off position while in the operation. Personal reading material and electronic devices are not permitted in operational areas."

The FAA wouldn't agree to an on-camera interview with Fox 5 News. It did, however, provide an explanation.

The FAA sent Fox 5 News a statement saying, in part, that the elevator at the Westchester tower is out of service and because the permanent break room is eight flights downstairs, both the controllers union and the FAA came to an agreement to make the back portion of the tower cab the temporary break room.

In an email to Fox 5 News, an FAA spokesperson said, "The use of cell phones is strictly prohibited in the tower, however, employees have temporarily been permitted to use devices for texting and e-mail only on their personal breaks, but not when on position directing air traffic."

But, according to Fox 5's source, the video shows controllers sleeping and using electronic devices while in position on the job in the tower, which the FAA says is not allowed.

Under no circumstances are air traffic controllers ever allowed to sleep anywhere in the tower. But Fox 5's source says controllers have been sleeping and using distracting devices at the Westchester tower for years, well before the elevator broke.

The source also says it is not difficult to get distracted while in the tower. The control tower is a small, confined 5-sided room and approximately 12-feet in diameter.

And air traffic insiders say sleeping on the job is the worst kept secret in the industry. At least six air traffic controllers across the country were caught napping last year.

Anne Whiteman was an air traffic controller at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport for 26 years. She left in 2009. She made headlines after blowing the whistle on the FAA for covering up what she described as serious errors and safety violations.

"We had a controller that actually fell asleep and you can hear him snoring over the frequency because he fell over and keyed his microphone button," Whitman says.

The FAA investigated Whiteman's claims, and found its Dallas managers were intentionally covering up mistakes. It vowed to clean up the system.

Four years later, the FAA tells Fox 5 News that the agency "is committed to ensuring the safety of our nation's airspace for the traveling public" and pointed to what it called "a landmark agreement with controllers to reduce fatigue."

The FAA made work rule changes including, giving controllers an extra hour of rest time in between shifts and requiring FAA managers to work more early morning and late night hours to ensure greater coverage.

The Fox 5 News source says it has not helped.

"It hasn't changed one thing at Westchester tower; the way people sleep on the job," the source says.

Alan Yurman is a retired safety investigator for the NTSB. He says it's vital that every member of the team in the tower pays close attention-even during the hours when air traffic slows down.

Yurman says, "It's sort of like a traffic cop, a traffic cop at school when its busy directing traffic and all of a sudden he decides, 'Oh, the traffic's not that bad. I'm gonna go in my car and take a nap' and some little kid comes out of school 'cause he's called home or something, and walk across the street and gets hit by a car. Is that ok?"

"You never know. You have to be ready from the minute you sign on until the minute you sign off," Yurman says.

In video from the Westchester tower provided to Fox 5 News, a supervisor is openly using his personal laptop.

He's supposed to be overseeing the tower crew.

Whiteman says, "He should be fired tomorrow if this video is of a supervisor working on his personal computer."

The consequences of not paying careful attention could not be more serious.

In 2009, a tour helicopter and a small plane collided over the Hudson River.

The controller, based at Teterboro Airport, was found to be working alone, yet on the phone conducting personal business.

Video provided to Fox 5 News showed a Westchester controller with his head down on a desk.

On another day, the same controller appears to be trying to find a comfortable resting position. Part of his problem could be the headset that he uses to communicate with pilots that he was wearing.

"I can't tell what position he's working but he's waiting for the next pilot to call and wake him up that's his alarm clock," Whiteman says.

Another piece of video shows another controller seeming to be fast asleep while he was supposed to be working ground control.

Other video shows two controllers. One appears to be playing on his smart phone while the other controller appears to have fallen asleep while reading his book. Sleeping and reading are both major infractions in the tower.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) sponsored legislation to ensure pilots have adequate rest between shifts and additional training requirements after a fatal 2009 crash near Buffalo.

Asked about her reaction to the video she said, "It's quite concerning. I travel with my children. In fact, just this weekend we came home to see our family. I had both my children on a flight with me. I want to make sure they are traveling in a safe environment."

She wants the FAA to take a careful look at the video and photos obtained by Fox 5 News.

Gillibrand says, "These images are extremely disturbing. If that is indeed the case, then our air traffic controllers falling asleep on the job has to be reviewed and investigated in full."

Last June, four people: pilot Keith Weiner, his wife, their 14 year old daughter and her young friend died in a fiery crash after their small plane plunged and burned in Armonk, just after take off from the Westchester airport.

The plane was heading north. It tried to circle back to the airport before crashing into a heavily wooded area.

The last audio transmissions heard were between Weiner and a controller at Tracon. Tracon deals with traffic en route in the New York area. The transmissions show the pilot urgently wanted to return to the Westchester airport.

The final cause of the crash has not been determined but the informant tells Fox 5 News that the controller in charge was not in the tower during the accident.

The informant says the supervisor was out of the tower for approximately an hour and forty-five minutes prior to the crash.

"Right before he left tower cab he announced he was going down to grade papers."

The pilot's last recorded transmission shows he was unable to make contact with Westchester tower for an unknown reason.

The FAA told Fox 5 News the audio indicates the pilot, Keith Weiner was "communicating with an entirely different air traffic facility."

Yurman says, "No, not that he can't get a hold of anybody, his emergency might be so great he doesn't have enough time to go back to the radios and change frequencies back to the tower."

The controller in charge that day, had nothing to say when contacted by Fox 5 News.

Fox 5 News contacted the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. It has not provided an official response. Fox 5 News also contacted each of the controllers shown in the video. None of them wanted to speak to Fox 5 news.

The Westchester County Airport Manager had not comment and referred Fox 5 News to the FAA.

The FAA says it consolidates the controllers positions and rotates them several times per shift, based on the complexity and volume of air traffic. However, controllers who fail to perform their duties because they are sleeping on the job, can be suspended or fired. The FAA also tells Fox 5 News that air traffic controller management became aware of a portable television stored in the tower. Since then, it has been removed and it is investigating the matter.

Last year, another whistleblower came out alleging controllers at the New York Air Route Traffic Control Center were endangering passengers by chatting, texting and even watching movies when they should be monitoring planes. That is still under investigation.

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