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'This is a very serious issue.' Congresswoman demands answers from FAA after 7 Investigation

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Posted at 7:04 PM, Dec 14, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-14 19:05:53-05

(WXYZ) — The 7 Investigators were the first to expose an unsafe landing system at Detroit Metro Airport. Now one of Michigan’s congresswomen, who sits on a committee that controls the purse strings of the FAA, is weighing in and she’s asking the agency for answers.

For landings on the western-most runway at Detroit Metro Airport, pilots have to approach at an angle. To do that, they’ve been using an antenna system called an Instrument Landing System, or ILS, Yankee offset localizer. Air traffic controllers say its placement at Metro Airport results in the signal getting interrupted, especially when planes taxi right in front of it in something called the “critical area.”

“You’re putting the flying public, number one, in harm’s way. Number two, you’re putting the pilots in a very compromised position and the controllers in the tower,” said Vincent Sugent, retired Air Traffic Controller.

RELATED: Whistleblower speaks out again about unsafe DTW landing system that's still being used

Sugent says pilots have been forced to abort their landings, also known as go-arounds, when that signal gets interrupted.

But when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) kept using the approach, Sugent filed a federal whistleblower complaint.

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel agreed with Sugent’s concerns, and wrote a letter to the President saying, “I urge the FAA to further review the safety issues associated with the ILS Y approach procedure and take the steps necessary to resolve them.”

“It’s all hands on deck right now, this is a very serious issue. I’m taking it very seriously,” said U.S. Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield).

Rep. Lawrence sits on the House Appropriations Transportation subcommittee. After the 7 Investigators exposed the problems with the landing system, Senator Gary Peters (D-Michigan) asked for a briefing from the FAA, which also included Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit), because the airport is in Tlaib’s district. Rep. Lawrence asked for an FAA briefing as well, which was held last week.

“At the end of the day, I don’t need anyone defending a process, I need to validate safety,” Rep. Lawrence told 7 Investigator Heather Catallo during an interview Monday. “When there’s a whistleblower, there’s sometimes that innate response of ‘ok, we’ve got a whistleblower, so we need to prove that we’re doing things right.’ Well, I need facts and I need everything collaborated because safety is the number one priority.”

RELATED: Michigan senators hold briefing with FAA after 7 Investigation

The 7 Investigators have been asking the FAA about this issue since early August. For the first time today, they sent us this statement.

“The FAA took steps to address potential interference with the Instrument Landing System (ILS) signal at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport. In March 2019, the FAA added a hold line on a taxiway to keep aircraft out of the ILS-critical area near Runway 4L/22R, preventing potential interference with the ILS signal.”

But Air Traffic Controller’s say adding painted hold lines on the taxiway doesn’t solve the problem.

On Jan. 26, 2020, nearly 10 months after the hold lines were added to the taxiway, controllers had to tell pilots to go-around because there were too many planes in the critical area near the antenna system.

In a radar playback obtained by the 7 Investigators, you can hear air traffic controllers telling a pilot to abort landings: “Delta 833, go around, climb maintain 4000, turn right 20 degrees.”

And this incident from March 10, 2019, also occurred after the addition of those “hold lines,” with a pilot demanding to talk to a supervisor, saying the landing approach is unsafe:

“You guys need to get off of Yankee and go to Zulu [runway],” said the pilot.

“Trust me that’s a constant discussion,” said the controller.

“No, it’s not a discussion, it’s a safety issue coming from the pilots,” said the pilot.

“Everybody knows that it’s not safe,” said Sugent, who hopes the FAA will come up with a long-term solution.

Rep. Lawrence met with the Sugent on Monday, and praised the dedication of Air Traffic Controllers.

“They are so committed, because they know within their responsibility rests the lives of millions of people. So this is not a subject that’s lightly taken. Everyone’s now at the table and this is a place we need to be, and the next step I want to get to is that we make sure we resolve all these issues,” Lawrence said.

If you have a story for Heather, please email her at hcatallo@wxyz.com.