Investigation: FAA romance led to $970 million contract award, 3,300-percent increase in air traffic control errors

Matthew Boyle Investigative Reporter
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A recent spike in air traffic control errors is likely attributable to a change in the Federal Aviation Administration’s chosen contractor for training air traffic controllers, The Daily Caller has learned. That change was likely the result of a government contracting shuffle orchestrated by an FAA official and her lover — a former FAA official who worked for Raytheon at the time the contract was awarded. Raytheon won the contract, worth nearly $1 billion.

Potentially deadly aircraft incidents attributable to control tower mistakes have increased dramatically in recent years. Professor Jack Williams of Georgia State University told TheDC that these operational errors averaged 10.8 per month between December 2008 and October 2010 — a startling 3,300-percent increase compared to the period between January 2007 and November 2008.

Williams, contracted by attorneys representing a company suing Raytheon over that FAA contract award, has examined potential reasons for that increase.

He told TheDC that the only substantive change the FAA has made to the air traffic control system during that time was the aspiring controllers’ training program. The FAA consolidated two separately run training programs: a “basic training” class in Oklahoma City, and the on-site control tower training future employees undergo during the ensuing three to five years.

For decades, the FAA contracted with the University of Oklahoma for the classroom program, and with the specialist firm Washington Consulting Group for the on-site training.

Washington Consulting Group, which lost its contract to Raytheon in 2008, is the company now suing the defense-contracting giant.

A former FAA official, speaking to TheDC on condition of anonymity, said future air traffic controllers were trained this way for “50 or 60 years.” They would start at the Oklahoma City academy, and then train on-site for a few years in one of the three levels of air traffic controlling.

“There are three different sectors of the air traffic control industry,” the official said in a phone interview. “Airspace is segmented into three different areas. The lowest area is the area in the immediate vicinity of the airport and the surface itself — that belongs to the air traffic controller in the tower.”

The next level, the official said, consists of airspace up to approximately 18,000 feet immediately surrounding runways, a “great, big radius around the airport.”

“Outside that is the overall airspace, everything within the United States, up to 100,000 feet plus,” the official added. “That belongs to the en route air traffic control facilities, of which there are 22 in the country.”

Once aspiring air traffic controllers finished their classroom training, they would report to a facility for long-term practical training. That’s where they would specialize in one of the three levels of air traffic control.
FAA contracted those training services to Washington Consulting Group for approximately 25 years, until the mid-2000s. But FAA officials then restructured how the training process worked.

Because of the impending retirement of a significant number of Reagan-era controllers, agency leadership sought to cut corners with training, the former FAA official told TheDC.

“The original purpose behind this — the way they originally sold it — was to eliminate the three-to-five years it took to produce graduates that would go into any one of those three areas.” Instead, “they aimed to certify controllers within six months.”

Along with those changes, the FAA sought to consolidate the classroom and practical training into a single government contract.

“The idea that they came up with,” the former FAA official added, “was [that] they thought they could combine the two contracts. And they wanted an added bonus in there, in that they’d have the contract winner raise the bar with training. The new contractor was going to be taking a greater share in developing the training materials.”

The resulting program became the Air Traffic Control Optimum Training Solutions (ATCOTS) contract. Defense giant Raytheon beat out the incumbent Washington Consulting Group for the combined ATCOTS work.

It now appears that the company successfully won that contract, worth nearly $1 billion, by leveraging a romantic relationship between a former FAA official and someone who remained a decision maker at the government agency.

Charlie Keegan was the FAA’s vice president of Operations Planning Services and director of the Joint Planning and Development Office before he abruptly left his post in late 2005 to take a high-ranking job at Raytheon.

Sources tell TheDC that Keegan’s departure might be related to a relationship he began with Maureen Knopes, the FAA official in charge of restructuring the air traffic control training — a process known as the “air traffic controller workforce integrated action plan.”

Knopes began as the “Interim Lead,” or program czar, inside FAA. She later became the ATCOTS program manager.

As Knopes climbed the FAA ladder, Keegan, her lover, quickly became Raytheon’s top official seeking the contract Knopes was creating.

At Raytheon in early 2006, Keegan was in charge of the Technical Services division’s section on Strategic Development, Airspace Management and Homeland Security. But Washington Consulting Group alleges in a lawsuit filed in 2010 in Washington, D.C. Superior Court that he later became Raytheon’s ATCOTS program manager, and that he was “behind the scenes, one of Raytheon’s point people on the ATCOTS program.”

On October 12, a D.C. Superior Court judge denied Raytheon’s motion to dismiss that lawsuit.

Neither Knopes nor Keegan returned TheDC’s requests for comment. But according to a former official who worked at the FAA at the time, the Keegan–Knopes relationship was common knowledge.

“Yes, there was a relationship, and it was my understanding talking to others, and even Raytheon [that everyone knew about it],” the official said. “At the time, Charlie came to me and asked if I would take Maureen into my organization because they were dating and he couldn’t have her in his organization.”

Some sources suggested to TheDC that Keegan’s resignation wasn’t friendly. That former FAA official, however, said, “It’s my understanding that he left on his own. He was just willing to go over to private industry for a better opportunity.”

It’s not uncommon for career government officials to fraternize with private sector employees. But it’s highly unusual for two romantically involved individuals to have direct influence over awarding nearly $1 billion in taxpayer funds.

In this case, Keegan and Knopes also held the flying public’s future safety in their hands.

Documents from an FAA Research, Engineering, Development and Advisory Committee (REDAC) hearing on April 13, 2006 show how much power Knopes had over the program.

Meeting minutes record the words of FAA researcher Dr. Kevin Corker, now deceased.

“Maureen Knopes and her staff … have done an enormous amount of work,” Corker said then, “and our basic finding is that we are very impressed with the depth of response in the controller workforce integrated action plan. There has been a prodigious amount of work, coordination, thought in putting together a plan to try to respond to the controller workforce issues and in brief review of that, we think that there’s some very positive aspects.”

Knopes appears to have become a more prominent figure at the FAA by September 2006, delivering her own speech at a REDAC hearing. The minutes of that meeting show that “[s]he discussed: the training alignment; systematic development framework; enhanced learning experience; controller workforce plan initiatives; the AT-SAT; and the academy enhancements and air traffic controller optimum training solution-ATCOTS.”

By February 5, 2007, an FAA report to Congress showed that Knopes had taken the reins completely. “Ms. Maureen Knopes has been appointed as the interim lead for development and oversight of the Controller Workforce Integrated Action Plan,” the report read. “The job announcement for a new ATO Director of Air Traffic Controller Training and Development has been released.”

During this same time, Keegan moved up the ranks inside Raytheon, becoming the program manager for Raytheon Technical Services’ ATCOTS program. In this capacity, he was dealing directly with his lover in trying to procure the ATCOTS contract for his new employer.

Keegan and Knopes were married in August 2007.

Washington Consulting Group had trained air traffic controllers continuously since 1985. The company was confident that its record would allow it to win the new ATCOTS program contract, just as it had for decades.

Thanks to Knopes and Keegan, it didn’t work out that way.

In June 2006 FAA announced that it was changing the bidding rules. Under the new system, created under Knopes’ leadership, there would no longer be two distinct entities running air traffic controller training.

Because of how the contracting process was restructured, Washington Consulting Group was systematically eliminated from contention. That company eventually teamed up with Lockheed Martin, a Raytheon competitor, serving as a Lockheed subcontractor with responsibility for 70 percent of the contract’s services.

Unlike how previous air traffic controller training contracts were awarded, Knopes’ ATCOTS bidding process systematically eliminated most potential bidders. Only contracting giants like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin were able to compete.

In 2007, the FAA suddenly changed its rules back, abandoning the plan that precluded smaller contractors from bidding on their own. By that time, however, the twenty-year incumbent Washington Consulting Group had already made a contractual commitment to Lockheed Martin. Because it wasn’t able to bid on its own, Raytheon’s fiercest contract competitor was essentially disqualified.

Raytheon won the contract, valued at about $900 million, in September 2008. In the spring of 2009, the company requested an addition $70 million because it had already exhausted its first year’s funding.

In September 2010, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General detailed several new problems that had arisen on Raytheon’s watch. And a recent Government Accountability Office report shows the problems continued worsening as the number of air traffic controller errors continued to skyrocket to unprecedented levels.

Washington Consulting Group sued Raytheon after it noticed the spike in air traffic controller mistakes and learned of the romantic relationship between Keegan and Knopes — and their subsequent marriage.

Steven Thomas, a Washington Consulting Group attorney, told The Daily Caller he believes the air traffic controller training contract restructuring wasn’t fair. He said the negative outcomes of the insider deal are only now becoming obvious to the American flying public.

“This is not just a bid rigging case,” Thomas said. “This is case about the safety of every person who gets on a plane in America. The public is not as safe as it should be.”

“The recent dramatic spike in air traffic control operational errors, and in near mid-air collisions, speaks for itself,” Thomas explained. “Raytheon is not doing the job it needs to do to properly train our air traffic controllers, as the DOT IG has shown. And we are seeing the dangerous results. Raytheon’s performance handling ATCOTS needs immediate and thorough review.”

While refusing to answer specific questions from TheDC, a Raytheon spokesperson dismissed the WCG’s allegations as “frivolous.”

“WCG’s allegations are both frivolous and irresponsible,” Raytheon spokesperson Amy Smith said. “The program competition was fairly managed by the FAA. Raytheon will vigorously defend its position in this matter.”

The FAA also dismisses the allegations, and refuses to answer any specific questions “due to ongoing litigation.”

“The FAA is committed to ensuring the safety of our aviation system,” agency spokeswoman Tammy Jones told TheDC. “The FAA takes all operational errors seriously but we believe increased reporting will result in an even safer aviation system. The FAA does not believe there is a direct correlation between the increase in operational errors and the current air traffic controller training contract.”

The FAA attributes the spike in errors to a new “self-reporting” system that encourages air traffic controllers to anonymously report their own mistakes.

An October 14 Associated Press story quoted an FAA statement addressing the increase in air traffic control errors. “As a result of this culture change,” the agency said, “FAA expected to see an increase in reported operational errors.”

The agency continues to blame the self-reporting system for the errors, even though National Air Traffic Controller Association president Paul Rinaldi and FAA administrator Randy Babbitt told The Washington Post in 2010 that the new self-reported statistics are not counted in the official, published FAA numbers.

Professor Jack Williams explained to TheDC that there is no other variable that is “as powerful and explanatory as a variable as the change in educational structure.”

“There was really only one primary driver,” Williams said, “which was the change in the educational system — and of course that also included the change in contractors.”

Neither political party in Congress has taken action. The Daily Caller has confirmed that in April 2011, several top Republicans on the House Transportation Committee met behind closed doors with Babbitt and Rinaldi to discuss this issue. Others in attendance included House Transportation Committee chairman Rep. John Mica, aviation subcommittee chairman Rep. Tom Petri, Rep. Chip Cravaack – a former pilot — and some House staffers.

Cravaack also mentioned the issues surrounding the Raytheon contract during a February aviation subcommittee hearing, asking Babbitt to provide him with lists of staff involved in the contracting process. Since the FAA won’t answer specific questions, and Cravaack’s staff has not responded to TheDC’s requests for comment, it is unclear if Cravaack ever got the list.

Spokespeople for Reps. Petri and Mica also have not responded to requests for comment.

On the Senate side, the committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety and Security held a May 24, 2011 hearing on the rise in operational errors. Neither full committee chairman Sen. John Rockefeller nor subcommittee chairwoman Sen. Maria Cantwell, both Democrats, mentioned Raytheon’s acquisition of the ATCOTS contract in their hearing statements.

Spokespersons for Cantwell and subcommittee Ranking Republican Sen. John Thune also did not respond to requests for comment.

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This story was updated after publication to reflect the fact that a lawsuit filed by Washington Consulting Group was among The Daily Caller’s sources for the statement that Mr. Keegan had influence over the ATCOTS bidding process while employed by Raytheon. It was also updated to clarify that Professor Jack Williams completed his research while contracted by attorneys representing Washington Consulting Group. We regret the omissions.