Air traffic controller Ray Adams put aviation safety ahead of his own career when he blew the whistle on near misses on the runways of Newark Airport in New Jersey. NJ.com reports that when Adams raised concerns about how runway intersections at Newark posed a risk of collision, he was removed from the control tower on a false charge of failing to follow orders.  The Office of Special Counsel has now confirmed that Adams was right about the inherent dangers of Newark’s runway configuration. At a Senate committee hearing last month, Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) questioned Randy Babbitt, the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Sen. Lautenberg expressed dismay that any air traffic controller would face threats of removal for raising a safety concern.

Babbitt agreed that the FAA mishandled Adams’ case, and said that the FAA would establish a new office where agency employees could raise concerns without fear of being fired. “When someone raises a question and they have to ‘blow a whistle’ to get the information to us, we’ve already had a breakdown, we’ve already had a slip in the system,” Babbitt said.

While Babbitt’s recognition of the agency’s misstep is a welcome development, Babbitt’s statement does not yet reflect a fully reformed safety-conscious commitment. Offices already exist where federal employees can raise safety concerns with legal protection against retaliation.  These include the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General, the Office of Special Counsel, and every member of Congress. Indeed, every office of the FAA, and of every other government safety agency, should be such an office.  The problem is not the lack of a whistleblower office, but rather lack of leadership to use existing offices to put safety first.  Any act of retaliation against a whistleblower is a betrayal of the FAA’s basic mission to put safety first.

“I was really waiting for him to take it one step further and say, ‘We will hold the managers accountable,’ but it was still excellent to hear the administrator,” Adams told NJ.com. Adams had worked for the FAA for 19 years, and at Newark Airport for eight years. He got it right when he sees management recognize a problem, but balk at the idea of disciplining abusive managers. If managers were as afraid of discipline for their abuse of power over their subordinates as they are of discipline for failing to meet objectives for the volume of traffic, then all employees would see that management really wants them to put safety first.

Sen. Lautenberg could help the air traffic controllers in his home state by calling on his fellow senators to dump the Senate’s hurdle-filled version of the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (WPEA), S. 372, and approve the House’s version, HR 1507.  The House version would guarantee that all federal employees could get jury trials when management retaliates against them for whistleblowing. Maybe then it won’t take two years for the FAA to implement a Converging Runway Display Aid to address the issue Adams raised.