FAA employee ‘maliciously’ caused a communications blackout between 10 planes and Air Traffic Control over Hawaii

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HONOLULU, Hawaii – A federal judge today sentenced Joelyn DeCosta, 48, of Honolulu, Hawaii, to two years of probation and a $5000 fine for “willfully and maliciously interfering with the working and use of a communication system operated and controlled by the United States.”

According to documents and information presented in court, DeCosta was an Airway Transportation Systems Specialist for the Federal Aviation Administration, and had worked for the F.A.A. for approximately 26 years. On January 4, 2019, she willfully and maliciously severed communications between Air Traffic Control in Honolulu and aircraft flying in U.S. airspace above and around Honolulu, in an area known as Sector 4, which covers flights between Oahu and Maui, Lanai, Moloka’i, Kaho’olawe, and the Big Island. The main and standby communication lines between Hawaii Air Traffic Control and pilots of approximately six planes during one incident and approximately four planes during a second incident were affected by the outages. In total, pilots could not hear instructions from Air Traffic Control for a total of two minutes, as a result of the outages caused by the defendant.

The defendant had previously pled guilty pursuant to a plea agreement. As part of her plea agreement, she resigned from the F.A.A. before sentencing. As a result, she lost her retirement benefits, which were estimated to have been worth in excess of $500,000.

One of the pilots of an aircraft affected by the outage spoke as a victim at the sentencing. He emphasized the danger to himself and the 40 passengers onboard his aircraft posed by the outage.

Officials never revealed a possible motive for the criminal acts.

“The United States Attorney’s Office takes any threat to the safety of the air travelling 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,” said U.S. Attorney Kenji M. Price.

“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.”

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