Two letters to the editor printed in today's Washington Post reminded me of a meeting I attended in May of the FAA Whistleblowers Alliance. One of today's letters was from the Potomac TRACON local of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. The other letter, by FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, extolled the virtues of the FAA's Partnership for Safety program which seeks "to encourage employees to speak up when they see a mistake or a safety issue." He adds, "Voluntary reporting is a key element of our safety culture . . .." I am glad that we agree on the need to have employees come forward with safety issues. I cannot help but think, though, that such programs would be more effective if all federal employees felt secure that they would be protected from retaliation. When federal employee whistleblowers have their cases limited to the Merit System Protection Board (MSPB) which rules in their favor in only 1.7% of the time, they would face a strong incentive to shut up and save their careers. To me, this is a good reason to support the House version of the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (WPEA), HR 1507, to assure all federal employee whistleblowers that they can have access to our customary legal process of jury trials.
At the FAA Whistleblowers Alliance meeting, Gabe Bruno (standing in photo) spoke about regulatory capture. It is the phenomenon in which government agencies tend, over time, to align themselves with the industry they are supposed to regulate. He is a former FAA manager, and now an AIR21 expert. He was thinking about the FAA. I think about MMS and the Gulf oil spill. Gabe Bruno also spoke about the margin of safety. He handed out the chart pictured here (follow this link for a PDF version). The point is that we have aviation regulations to keep every day operations safe, and as far away as possible from the conditions that cause disasters. This is the margin of safety. Every time anyone violates a regulation, suppresses a maintenance need, or intimidates a whistleblower, we move one step closer to a catastrophe. Our margin of safety gets narrower. When Congress makes whistleblower protection laws stronger, we have a wider margin of safety. People have less fear of retaliation and are more likely to speak up. We might not know when or how, but over time, the wider margin of safety will save lives. Gabe Bruno also passed out a 2008 letter from the House Transportation Committee that reveals some of the regulatory capture problem at FAA, and two of his letters to the FAA about what that agency can do now to increase our margin of safety.