Former FAA Employee Sentenced For Aircraft Communication Blackout

A federal judge has sentenced a former Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) employee for causing a communications blackout between ten planes flying above Honolulu, Hawaii, and Air Trafic Control.  The incident, which occurred in early 2019, now sees long-time FAA employee Joelyn DeCosta fined $5,000 for what the judge called an act that “willfully and maliciously interfered” with ten airborne planes.

Hawaiian Airlines ATR42
The incident occurred in airspace around Honolulu. Photo: Hawaiian Airlines

DeCosta worked for the FAA for 26 years before the incident and will now spend two years on probation. She will also lose a federal pension estimated to be worth around half a million dollars. As part of a plea deal before sentencing, the 48-year-old also agreed to resign from her current job, where she is an Airway Transportation Systems Specialist.

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The planes lost all communication

In a statement from the Department of Justice (DOJ) U.S. Attorney’s Office District of Hawaii seen by Simple Flying, it accuses DeCosta of deliberately interfering with the working and use of a communication system operated and controlled by the United States, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 1362.

The planes that lost communication with Honolulu Air Traffic Control were flying in an area known as sector 4, covering all flights between Oahu and Maui, Lanai, Moloka’i, Kaho’olawe, and the Big Island.

Ten planes were affected

The communication blackout involved six planes in the first incident and four planes in the second, causing the aircraft pilots to not receive instructions from Air Traffic Control for two minutes. When speaking to the court ahead of sentencing, one of the pilots affected by the communication blackout said that DeCosta’s actions endangered himself and the 40 passengers aboard the plane he was piloting.

In the D.O.J. statement, U.S. Attorney KenjiU M. Price said,

“The United States Attorney’s Office takes any threat to the safety of the air traveling public very seriously and will vigorously enforce federal criminal laws against any federal employee who abuses their position and, in doing so, puts air travelers in harm’s way.” 

The tower lost communication with ten planes. Photo: KeithH via Wikipedia

“Employees of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are entrusted with safely overseeing the busiest and most complex air transportation system in the world. Key to that trust is maintaining an uncompromising level of integrity in their work, which many FAA personnel do,” said Cissy Tubbs, Special Agent-in-Charge, Western Region, Department of Transportation, Office of Inspector General – Investigations.

“Today’s sentencing demonstrates our commitment to working with our law enforcement partners and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to detect and prevent those willing to compromise the safety of the National Airspace System and the traveling public.”

The Department of Transportation, Office of Inspector General, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation both worked on the investigation, which was then prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Marc A. Wallenstein.

Was the sentence harsh enough?

Interfering with Air Traffic Control communications is a serious and dangerous act. While the action taken is necessary, it begs the question of whether the protagonist should have received a harsher punishment.

Hawaiian Airlines ATR 42
DeCosta lost her $500,000 federal pension. Photo: Hawaiian Airlines

Sure, losing a $500,000 federal pension will hurt, but what if it was an individual with no government pension to take away?

What do you think about DeCosta’s actions and the sentence she received? Please tell us what you think in the comments.