Illustration by Bloomberg View
Illustration by Bloomberg View

Visit the Federal Aviation Administration’s website, and you will be greeted by a short video in which the U.S. agency urges pilots, mechanics, suppliers and aircraft builders to be mindful of passengers’ lives. “We all have to make a commitment to put safety first,” declares FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt.

In important ways, though, that commitment is fraying.

The FAA employs 15,600 air-traffic controllers, who ensure safe, orderly movement of aircraft through U.S. airspace. These are coveted positions, paying an average of $136,000 a year. Applicants must pass an eight-hour exam and undergo as much as four years of on-the-job development before being fully certified. Periodic drug and alcohol testing comes with the job.

The FAA’s financing is currently tied up in Congress over a political dispute about how to tally union votes. That momentary controversy masks deeper concerns about controllers’ on-the-job accountability. In theory, when controllers make mistakes, they can be fired. Reality turns out to be much more troubling.

A Bloomberg News investigation found that within the past two years, the FAA has attempted to fire 140 controllers and other air-traffic workers, only to end up rescinding, reducing or deferring penalties in 40 percent of the cases. Drug and alcohol violations are especially unlikely to lead to firings. In two-thirds of those cases, employees have kept their jobs or been allowed to retire with their benefits intact.

Remember the uproar in April, when it emerged that FAA controllers in Miami, Seattle and Knoxville, Tennessee, had been napping on the job? Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood made headlines by vowing to fire sleeping controllers. So far, that has been an empty threat. The Seattle case is pending. The Knoxville worker retired. And the Miami controller still works for the FAA after the proposed termination was reduced to a lesser penalty.

Deadly Crash

Even more astonishing is the aftermath of an August 2009 crash between a single-engine plane and a helicopter over the Hudson River, near New York City. In the minutes before that crash, the controller who should have been advising the plane’s pilot was on the phone, joking with an airport worker about how to grill a dead cat.

That accident killed nine people. Safety investigators said the controller was distracted and partly to blame. The FAA tried to fire that controller, who instead has been suspended, transferred and demoted. He still works for the FAA.

Controllers enjoy two forms of job protection. They can challenge disciplinary penalties through a government panel called the Merit Systems Protection Board. They can also invoke 15 pages of provisions in their union contract, letting them appeal sanctions to an arbitrator. Some disciplinary proceedings can stretch out for years.

Rare Opportunity

Next year, the U.S. government will have a rare opportunity to fix this mess. The union contract covering air-traffic controllers expires Sept. 30, 2012. If the FAA or its parent body, the Transportation Department, wanted, they could take aim at contract language that makes it unusually difficult to fire controllers whose conduct is a menace to public safety.

LaHood was asked this spring whether he wanted to seek changes in the controllers’ contract. He said he hadn’t considered it. But he should.

In an age of straitened government, the FAA is in a great position to demand more from its controllers. Thousands of qualified candidates -- including military veterans who have handled air traffic in Iraq and Afghanistan -- are vying for just 829 controller openings this year. The next contract should be written so that public safety and controllers’ accountability are paramount. If that means picking a fight over the contract’s drawn-out grievance and arbitration process, then LaHood should do so.

To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: view@bloomberg.net.