Airline lawsuit threatens delays for FAA

As government regulators and Congress struggle to determine the reasons behind a rash of near-collisions between airlines, a lawsuit against a Raytheon subsidiary that trains air traffic controllers could give critics more cause for concern.

Airline safety experts are keeping a close watch on the $1 billion lawsuit’s progress. A guilty verdict or settlement would have serious airline safety implications and could complicate Congress’s efforts to pass a long-delayed reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) bill this year.

A U.S. District judge ruled Thursday that Raytheon Technical Services Co. must defend itself against a lawsuit brought by Washington Consulting Group Inc. in local D.C. court.

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Washington Consulting alleges that it lost an FAA contract to train air traffic controllers to the Raytheon subsidiary because of bid rigging.

More broadly, the suit argues that the deal between the subsidiary and the FAA endangered critical elements of the country’s air traffic control system for its “own financial profit,” according to the complaint.

Attorneys for Raytheon have dismissed the charges as baseless, and have sought to dismiss the case.

Reauthorizing the FAA is a top priority for Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.), and the suit adds another nettlesome problem to the issue of air safety and changes to air traffic controller training.

The House and Senate deadlocked last year over moving a comprehensive FAA authorization because of differences on whether to schedule and fund the FAA’s proposed shift to a satellite-based traffic-control system. Many of the differences over the bill cross party lines.

Instead, Congress approved a narrower extension that raised minimum experience and training standards for new airline pilots but did not deal with the issue of modernizing air-traffic control.

The FAA has experienced a record number of air traffic controller errors and several near-misses between passenger airlines in recent months and years even as crash fatalities involving commercial aircraft have been at an all-time low. The FAA attributes the dramatic uptick to increased reporting after implementing new policies making it easier and less risky to report problems.

Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, said increased reporting could very well account for the record number of near-misses but stressed the importance of determining the exact cause.

“A lot of things could be contributing to the near-misses and a lot of them could be reporting. There’s a lot more incentives to report and fewer incentives to hide,” he said. “I think this requires a fairly thoughtful look. It could be a mix of things. I don’t think there’s a quick, clean answer for any of it.”

Congress is eager to get a handle on the size and scope of errors recorded by air traffic controllers, which have increased 51 percent nationwide in 2010 amid reports by the FAA that warning systems aboard more than 9,000 planes might not be keeping track of all nearby planes in busy airspace.

In addition, a September Department of Transportation inspector general’s audit of an FAA contract with Raytheon to train controllers found numerous problems, including a basic failure “to consider program requirements.”

As a result, the FAA “faces significant challenges in achieving the program’s goals,” the inspector general found, and contract costs and fees have exceeded initial estimates by 35 percent during the first year of the contract and 20 percent during the second year.

Now that contract is the subject of a lawsuit that took a step forward on Thursday.

A Mica spokesman declined to say whether his boss plans to investigate the Raytheon air traffic control training contract or the lawsuit’s allegations.

But the spokesman said Mica is dedicated to addressing the rise in air-traffic controller mistakes and the alarming number of near-collisions in recent months.

FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown and Raytheon spokesman Jonathan Kasle declined to comment directly on the pending litigation.

Just three days after winning back the majority, Mica and Rep. Tom Petri (Wis.), the chairman of the Aviation subcommittee, sent a letter to FAA Administrator Randolph Babbit, urging him to expedite the investigation and address the causes of the “potential increase” of the near-misses.

Babbit in late December promised to work with Transportation Committee staff to provide “timely and accurate information.” He also outlined several improvements the FAA is trying to make to air traffic control training procedures.

“I want to assure you that the FAA is addressing air traffic controller training and procedures to minimize the risk of near-collisions and maintain the safety of the National Airspace System,” he wrote.

Bethesda, Md.-based Washington Consulting is seeking $1 billion in damages.

The company filed the suit against Raytheon and its employee, Charles Keegan, last January. The complaint alleges that Keegan conspired with the FAA in 2008 to obtain a 10-year contract to train air traffic controllers. It also alleges that Keegan, a high-ranking FAA official, at the time of the contract bidding was having a romantic affair with a senior FAA official he later married and that he and the official worked together to cut Washington Consulting out of the bidding process. Keegan now serves as the program manager for Raytheon’s air traffic control training contract.

Washington Consulting Group (WCG) had bid on the contract as a subcontractor to Lockheed Martin Corp.

Raytheon attorneys Christopher Posteraro and Jeffrey Rosen of Kirkland & Ellis argue the charges are baseless and have no legal justification under the law, and point out that WCG never availed itself of the “carefully constructed administrative framework” set out by federal law that requires FAA contract disputes to be resolved through the FAA Dispute Resolution System. They have sought to have the case dismissed or moved to federal court.

The judge on Thursday rejected their argument to move the case.

“It is hardly surprising that disappointed bidders on federal contracts — or, as in this case, a disappointed subcontractor — would like to trot to court to file suit against their rivals,” the attorneys wrote. “This court should recognize WCG’s accusations and state-law claims for what they are: a backdoor attempt at a tardy bid protest.”