Obvious Incentives for Coverups

The Associated Press: FAA tries again to fix cover-up of air safety errors:

It’s always disturbing to hear about cover ups and systemic problems related to aviation safety, whether it’s airplane maintenance or air traffic control. In this case, it’s the controllers:

“… the Transportation Department’s inspector general found FAA managers in Dallas-Fort Worth routinely and intentionally misclassified instances where airplanes were allowed to fly closer together than they were supposed to, the FAA said. Instead of calling them operational errors or deviations from safety rules by FAA controllers, the managers labeled them pilot errors or nonevents.”

Yikes, there had better be some consequences for that. Something sure is rotten within the FAA.
I can’t find the original local article I saw in the paper on Saturday, an article which posed a question of basically “well why would people do that?” The incentive seems pretty obvious… gaming the numbers to look good and to avoid punishment for controller errors.

This article sums it up:

By masking the mistakes as pilot errors, he said, the controllers and their managers were able “to escape accountability.”

It sure would be nice to see an FAA culture develop where we’re not relying on whistle blowers coming forward to report systemic rot like this.

A special counsel investigator found:

“I continue to be concerned about a national trend,” Bloch said in a statement referring to the Dallas-Forth Worth cover-up and the recent disclosure of lax FAA supervision of safety compliance by Southwest Airlines and American Airlines. “These problems exist because of a culture of complacency and cover-up in the FAA. This culture did not develop on its own. I believe it happened with the complicity of higher management and could not have been possible without the support of leadership in Washington.”

So I guess we can’t blame individual controllers for mischaracterizing the errors? Is part of the systemic problem a shortage of controllers? That’s been a complaint at O’Hare (where there are many near-miss incidents each year) and it’s a complaint at DFW:

The air traffic controllers’ union, deep into a two-year-old fight with the FAA over manpower and safety, pounced on the agency’s announcement to again criticize what it considers a shortage of workers. The Dallas-Fort Worth facility has 57 fully certified controllers, down from 99 in January 2006, said Darrell Meachum, vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association’s southwest region.

Are they understaffed now or were they overstaffed before? We can’t tell from the outside. But being chronically understaffed could certainly create conditions where errors are more likely to occur… and a culture of cover ups… sheesh, that doesn’t help, does it?

Why are so many organizations prone to this cycle of cover ups and blame? Why can’t leaders “embrace their problems,” being open about waste and working together to solve problems and prevent process defects? Expecting too much out of people, huh?

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Mark Graban's passion is creating a better, safer, more cost effective healthcare system for patients and better workplaces for all. Mark is a consultant, author, and speaker in the "Lean healthcare" methodology. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. His most recent project is an eBook titled Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also the VP of Improvement & Innovation Services for the technology company KaiNexus.

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2 Comments on "Obvious Incentives for Coverups"

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Our nation’s culture is one of “what can I get away with?” instead of “what’s the right thing to do?” Bill Clinton AND George W. Bush have both contributed to that, from the top…

  2. David says:

    Anonymous…”Our nation’s culture is one of “what can I get away with?”” …you have no doubt conducted a cross-cultural analysis and concluded that such cover-ups never occur in other countries, like Germany, France, and China?

    Regarding the specific case: an obvious solution is to require all-near miss reports to be copied to the pilot involved–thus, if it’s attributed to pilot error and he feels this is incorrect, he can raise the issue with higher FAA management. I’m actually surprised this isn’t already happening.

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