Sky Harbor Flight Path Controversy

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Several Phoenix Aviation Department employees have been disciplined because they knew about controversial flight path changes long before they happened and did not appropriately communicate that information to their bosses. Phoenix city manager Ed Zuercher will talk about details.

TED SIMONS: Several Phoenix Aviation Department employees have been disciplined after it was found they learned of the FAA's flight plan changes out of Sky Harbor and did nothing. Here to talk about all this is Phoenix city manager Ed Zuercher. Good to have you on the program.

ED ZUERCHER: Thanks for having me.

TED SIMSON: You betcha. Internal investigation into these flight path changes, what prompted the investigation?

ED ZUERCHER: We had openly information in February or March that an FAA official had spoken at a conference, and said that one of our employees had known information about this prior to the time when we thought they had known. So with that information we procured the services of a law firm to come in and do a thorough top to bottom review, lay out a timeline and tell us who knew what, when, how. The result is a 24-page report available at SkyHarbor.com for anyone to read, the details of what the City of Phoenix knew and when our staff knew it.

TED SIMONS: And the investigation found that at least six aviation officials knew this maybe as far back as 2012?

ED ZUERCHER: Right, six people working for the aviation department, not all six knew the whole time. It started with one and then a couple more and then over the last year a couple more. So over that time period there were a total of six.

TED SIMONS: Were they high-ranking officials?

ED ZUERCHER: They ranged from a front line employee, a noise specialist, supervisors of that person, all the way up to the assistant director and then-director of the that department.

They knew about it a year before the flight paths were implemented by the FAA. It's important to know it's the FAA that established flight paths. They tell planes where to fly, they have the authority to do that. The airport operator does not. They may have input but it's the FAA's decision to do that.

TED SIMONS: All the way up to the top they knew about this. Why wasn't this challenged, why wasn't the information relayed to others if it was not relayed to others?

ED ZUERCHER: That's really the basis of this and the most disappointing thing to me about this. We had staff members who were engaged with the FAA in -- as they were developing these things, communicating that up through their chain of command, sometimes too slowly. But then it came to a point and stopped, didn't move forward. There was nothing raised for over a year so that there could be any reaction made to that. For whatever reasons it didn't come forward. That's the disappointing part.

TED SIMONS: Sounds like the report suggests they were maybe more concerned about managing public reaction than getting the information out there accurately.

ED ZUERCHER: We have perfect hindsight, 20/20, now that airplanes are actually flying over places people see what that means. At that point they were lines on a map. It doesn't excuse it but that's what they are going on. There was confusion about will the FAA come back, no one has contacted the aviation director, what are the next steps. But that doesn't change the fact that there should have been more information brought forward to the public sooner by our officials. More questions asked, more pushing done back on the FAA.

TED SIMONS: As far as other high ranking city officials, when did you know? When did the others know? When did high-ranking officials know?

ED ZUERCHER: Less than two weeks before the change it was brought to city hall. This is happening, there's no way to stop it, so we have to be ready for whatever the outcome of that is.

TED SIMONS: Was it a secret amongst these employees or was it basically inertia?

ED ZUERCHER: I think it was inertia. There's so much deference given to the FAA, they regulate the board, flight paths, they are going to make the decision. Breaking back and saying why, how, show me how you're going to do this. I'm disappointed in our employees and they are being disciplined for that. But I'm really upset with the FAA. It appears to me from reading this there was a clear strategy to avoid talking to anyone at high level from the city. We talk to the FAA all the time on multiple levels. But the report detailed that clearly they never did; in fact, I'll read you a section. The FAA did not directly contact any senior member of the aviation department prior to the fall of 2014. Instead, for reasons unknown, the FAA chose to make its sole point of contact at the lowest levels of the aviation department. That doesn't excuse the lack of communication from our folks, when they knew from their staff. But there's no good explanation from the FAA as to why they did not bring something this important forward to our officials when they were talking about other items all the time.

TED SIMSON: With that in mind, and also the indication that inertia was at the helm here, I have two different avenues, how does either avenue affect a lawsuit against the FAA?

ED ZUERCHER: You know, I don't know. We are laying all our cards out on the table, making it clear to people. Most of this is based on public record, things that are already available and the lawsuit will have anyway. We just put it into this form. So you know, its impact on the lawsuit I guess is important. But what's more important is the public's trust in the city, that we're going to -- we told them we will let you know what we know when we know it. That's what this report does.

TED SIMOSS: Disciplined you mentioned, reprimands, suspensions and demotions. Sounds like some of these folks may have been actually lying to the public when they expressed concerns or asked questions. Not lying? You don't think so?

ED ZUERCHER: I don't know that our staff lied. I think from the beginning in September and October and November and December in public meetings, our staff said we have -- we have talked to the FAA and staff talked to us, we didn't know what it meant. We thought they would come back to us again with more opportunity to talk to them. I don't think it's that, we just missed the opportunity to raise the issue.

TED SIMONS: But I was thinking of original staff, not necessarily you or elected members but staff that were maybe contacted initially, what the heck's going on here. No one has lost their job over this. Do you think this is a fireable offense?

ED ZUERCHER: No. You have to understand it this way. We have four of these employees covered by civil service would have been covered -- I'm sorry, three of the employees are covered by civil service, they have rights that are laid out and appeal rights. I've got to be careful about talking about that. One of the employees who remains, the director was demoted and given 40 hours off without pay. That's pretty severe. We're not talking about criminal activity here, but a laptop in judgment, a mistake was made by an employee who otherwise has a very good track record with the city. We're holding our employees accountable. I'd like to see someone at the FAA held accountable in the same way. They had never come forward and given us any information on what they knew and when they knew it. Why did they focus on a very entry level employee and never talk to us about what they were doing?

TED SIMONS: Any indication they asked those entry level employees not to say anything to higher-ups?

ED ZUERCHER: Again, that's the problem. The employees had a responsibility to all the way up to the director.

TED SIMONS: All right. It's good to have you, thanks very much.

ED ZUERCHER: I appreciate it.

Ed Zuercher:Phoenix City Manager

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