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Government watchdog calls for greater FAA oversight after whistleblower investigations

The Federal Aviation Administration has not adequately responded to whistleblower allegations and should be subject to more rigorous oversight, according to an investigation conducted by the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal investigative and prosecutorial agency. 

Special counsel Carolyn Lerner wrote in a letter to the White House and Congress on Tuesday that a "series of complaints suggests deficiencies in the FAA's oversight function." Among the complaints were concerns about air traffic controllers asleep on the job in the New York area and operational runway errors at Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

The FAA has one of the highest rates of whistleblower filings per employee of any executive branch agency, according to Lerner's letter.

Related: FAA promotes 'safety culture' to foster safer skies

The Office of Special counsel received 178 of these disclosures since 2007, 87 of which concerned aviation safety. All but five of those referrals were substantiated by the Department of Transportation, the agency that manages the FAA.

While noting that the U.S. aviation system is the "safest in the world," Lerner wrote that the FAA took inadequate steps or failed to address whistleblower concerns in some cases.

"These disclosures paint a picture of an agency with insufficient responsiveness given its critical public safety mission," Lerner wrote.

Whistleblower allegations included the following complaints:

  • An air traffic controller reported that controllers in the New York area slept in the control room, played video games and watched movies while on duty and used "careless and casual language" when communicating with pilots, which led to a near-crash;
  • Aircraft at New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport were cleared to depart without necessary distance from the wake turbulence of heavy jet aircraft approaching Newark Liberty International Airport
  • Inconsistent requirements for distance between landing and departing aircraft leads to confusion and operational errors at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. In addition, faulty wind instruments are being used at the airport.

The Department of Transportation said that it takes all whistleblower complaints "seriously," according to a statement from the agency.

"We are confident that America's flying public is safe — thanks in part to changes that DOT and FAA have already made in response to these concerns and other whistleblower disclosures," the statement said. "DOT is committed to continuing to review its policies and practices to implement improvements where necessary."

In 2009, the FAA established an office dedicated to making sure whistleblower cases were reviewed and investigated independently. 

"Preventive measures could be far more effective if the Department of Transportation listened to its own employees' alarm bells, and was more prompt in its corrective actions after those alarms were sounded," Lerner wrote.

Rebecca Ruiz is a reporter at msnbc.com. Follow her on Twitter here.

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