LAS VEGAS (HawaiiNewsNow) - "I just want this whole episode behind me," said Bob Rabideau in a telephone interview with Hawaii News Now Saturday morning from Las Vegas, where he is on vacation. "I had a terrific career. These last couple of months have been very, very difficult," he said.
Rabideau was the Federal Aviation Administration's air-traffic manager in Honolulu for more than 20 years, overseeing 163 employees, and also served as Hawaii pacific hub manager for FAA air-traffic operations in Hawaii and Guam. His salary was $179,700 when he took voluntary retirement on Feb. 27, a week after the FAA placed him on administrative leave because of an investigation into the handling of a close call involving two jets near Honolulu Jan. 14.
He repeatedly denied that he tried to cover up the incident, a charge leveled at him by current and former FAA employees and by sources close to the investigation.
"I did not direct anybody to cover anything up," Rabideau said. "Every airplane that departs Honolulu, we know somebody or we're related to somebody on board. Why would I compromise safety?"
Rabideau blamed the cover up on lower-level FAA managers in Honolulu.
"It appeared an operations manager and another front line manager covered this up and took no corrective action, as far as I know," he said.
Rabideau claimed he launched an investigation Jan. 25, after the National Transportation Safety Board inquired with the FAA about the close call and Rabideau heard from his FAA superiors on the mainland asking why it wasn't reported to them.
Rabideau said a Honolulu air-traffic operations manager called him Saturday Jan. 14, the day of the incident, to notify him about it, but failed to convey the seriousness of the close call. It activated both planes' collision avoidance systems, forcing the pilots to alter their altitudes to avoid a collision as they approached Honolulu International Airport for landing.
"I used to have as many five to six of those calls (about collision avoidance alerts) a month. There was no concern in his (the operation manager's) voice," Rabideau said. "Unless something triggers my interest, I won't look into it further. I assume he listened to the tape and he looked at the radar. He had not."
Only in late January did Rabideau find out that the controller who mistakenly put the jets on a collision course had become "flustered" and asked to be replaced from radar duty right after the incident, he said.
Rabideau said he asked his immediate superior in Seattle, Ron Fincher, to have the National Transportation Safety Board investigate the incident, but instead the FAA sent a team of five FAA officials from the West Coast to conduct a probe.
"These guys (from the FAA) were not trained to do investigations and Fincher sent these folks so he could manipulate the final result. When you send in low-level managers, you get low-level results," Rabideau said.
The FAA investigation found the lack of a "safety culture" in the Honolulu air-traffic control operation.
The probe also concluded that Rabideau's employees were scared of him and reluctant to speak freely of their concerns about safety, training and other issues.
"Have them present evidence to that fact. It's the federal government. They have rights as employees," Rabideau said. "Show me evidence that this actually occurred. It did not occur. I don't know too many managers who can call all their employees by their first name."
The FAA said it stood by the findings of what it called the "independent" investigation by a team of five FAA officials from outside the Honolulu control facility conducted in January and February.
Rabideau also criticized the FAA's 2008 implementation of the Air Traffic Safety Action Program, known as ASTAP, nationwide. The FAA said by encouraging non-punitive, open reporting of safety incidents and then analyzing the data, the industry can identify safety threats and precursors – before catastrophe strikes.
But Rabideau called it "a get out of jail free program" for air-traffic controllers.
"Prior to 2008 this controller (in the Jan. 14 incident near Honolulu) would have been decertified and put through the training program again. There's no accountability for controllers who get involved in safety incidents as long as they file an ATSAP report. The union likes that, because the controllers are not held responsible for incident, and it does not allow managers to take corrective action," he said.
If the FAA is not aware of an incident because controllers are fearful of reprisals for owning up to a mistake, the FAA can't investigate it, FAA officials said.
The controller who mistakenly put the Japan Airlines jet and UPS cargo plane on a collision course near Honolulu was sent to retraining but was not decertified, has not been disciplined and is back at work, according to the FAA.
During the investigation into the close call incident and its cover up, Rabideau said, "I was really given home detention, and ordered not to talk to anybody, so I had no way of defending myself, none."
He said air-traffic controller union leaders and other employees "conspired" against him in the probe.
"The union decided that my tenure as a manager was up, so they started making stuff up," he added.
"Ultimately, the guy who sits on the top is held responsible for the actions or inactions of the people he oversees," Rabideau said. "The honorable thing for me to do was to retire; 47 years is a long time. My wife wanted me to retire ten years ago when I was eligible."
Rabideau, who is 65, started as an air-traffic controller in the Air Force and served a year and a half in Vietnam during the Vietnam War, he said. He began his career with the FAA as an air-traffic control specialist in Oct. of 1969, at an annual salary of $7,639, according to paperwork released by the FAA.
Rabideau rose through the ranks, managing Maui's FAA air-traffic control operation for a little more than seven years and became the FAA's Hawaii pacific hub manager in September 1991.
A Kamehameha Schools graduate, he grew up in Kaimuki.