Obama administration backs FAA despite uproar

WASHINGTON Wed Apr 20, 2011 8:45pm EDT

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood pauses while he speaks at the opening of a National Pipeline Safety Forum at the Department of Transportation headquarters in Washington, April 18, 2011. REUTERS/Larry Downing

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood pauses while he speaks at the opening of a National Pipeline Safety Forum at the Department of Transportation headquarters in Washington, April 18, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration has full confidence in the top U.S. aviation safety official and his agency following a string of highly publicized lapses by air traffic controllers, including one this week involving a plane carrying first lady Michelle Obama.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told Reuters on the sidelines of a transportation conference on Wednesday that he supports Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) chief Randy Babbitt "1,000 percent."

He also said he saw no need for an independent review of the FAA's performance beyond the investigations already under way.

LaHood said the FAA has started nine investigations into embarrassing disclosures of controllers sleeping on the job and other safety-related incidents and is working as quickly as possible to find out what went wrong in each case.

"We are doing a top-to-bottom review," LaHood said. "We think we're looking into this as thoroughly as we possibly can."

On the PBS "NewsHour" program, LaHood said the FAA had fired two controllers who had been on suspension --including one who had been sleeping on the job in Knoxville, Tennessee.

"A controller actually made a bed in the control tower, brought a pillow, brought blankets, he's been fired," he said. "We're not going to sit by and let that kind of behavior take place in control towers."

A second controller, in Miami, was violating procedures by directing a 737 to fly too closely to a smaller plane to monitor it, LaHood said.

Hank Krakowski, the FAA official in charge of day-to-day operations involving the nation's 15,000 air traffic controllers, resigned last week over the uproar accompanying disclosures of controllers sleeping on the job in several locations, including Washington.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is also looking into controller errors and fatigue. The board, which is an independent agency, said on Wednesday it would investigate Monday's incident involving Michelle Obama's jet.

Representative John Mica, chairman of the House of Representatives Transportation Committee, told Reuters in a separate interview that he also supported Babbitt, a former airline pilot and financial consultant who took the job in 2009.

"He still has my confidence," Mica said. "I think he inherited a mess and he's trying to sort through it."

LaHood said he had not spoken with the White House about the latest mishap involving a government jet carrying Mrs. Obama and Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, on a flight from New York.

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The first lady's plane was ordered to abandon its landing approach to Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington after controllers at a Virginia radar center allowed the Boeing 737 to get too close to a military cargo plane flying about 3 miles ahead.

There was a concern that the lumbering Air Force C-17 would not clear the runway before Mrs Obama's plane, the next in line on the approach path, was ready to land.

The Boeing jet made a series of subtle maneuvers before making a new approach without incident. Neither plane was ever in any imminent danger and both landed safely, the FAA said.

The mistake, called an operational error, is not uncommon and usually they are corrected easily and quickly with little, if any, outside notice.

(Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Jackie Frank)