Child 'air traffic controller' adds to New York JFK's aviation trouble

Reports of the child of an air traffic controller interacting with planes from the JFK tower brings more scrutiny to New York's busy air corridor.

By , Staff writer

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    Air traffic controllers are under investigation for an incident involving a child who was allowed to help direct air traffic from at JFK airport.
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Federal regulators announced an investigation Wednesday into an incident in which a child was allowed to help direct air traffic from the air traffic controller tower of New York's JFK Airport.

The Federal Aviation Administration said two tower workers – a supervisor and an air traffic controller who allowed his son to talk with pilots – are on administrative leave pending the outcome of the inquiry.

“This lapse in judgment not only violated FAA’s own policies, but common sense standards for professional conduct,” said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt. “We have an incredible team of professionals who safely control our nation’s skies every single day. This kind of behavior does not reflect the true caliber of our workforce.”

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The flap draws attention to a profession where safety is the essence of the job description, and where a single lapse can cost many lives.

The incident, which occurred in the middle of last month, also took place in the nation's busiest air-traffic corridor – a region that already faces other aviation-related challenges:

• A major runway at JFK Airport closed starting March 1 for repaving. About one-third of the traffic at the already busy airport will be diverted to other runways for about four months.
• Airports in and around New York rank among the worst in the US for on-time arrivals. JFK in particular has seen instances in the past two years when two planes, one taking off and one landing, came within half a mile of one another.
• The region also has more than its share of problems with airplanes striking birds. On Wednesday, news of the retirement of Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger was a reminder of this challenge. He made a "miracle on the Hudson" landing last January, after bird strikes jammed both engines of a US Airways jetliner taking off from LaGuardia airport. All onboard survived.

A lapse in protocol for air traffic controllers is a serious issue no matter where it occurs. But in this context, the February incident is all the more sensitive because it happened at JFK.

Still, in a flurry of news coverage Wednesday, not all voices condemned the tower staff involved. Some said the audio recordings gave no indicaton that controllers were necessarily distracted from their duties during the time when the boy was interacting with pilots.

"JetBlue 171 cleared for takeoff," the boy says at one point, followed by his father giving more detailed instructions.

The incident became public via a website, LiveATC.net, which allows people to listen to live audio from air traffic controllers around the country.

Dave Pascoe, who runs the site, was among those who called the FAA reaction overblown.

Still, the demanding environment of the control tower doesn't mesh well with a "take your child to work day."

"These kinds of distractions are totally unacceptable,” Mr. Babbitt of the FAA said in his statement.

The FAA is conducting its investigation, just as it did recently with two apparently distracted pilots who overflew their destination.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this story.

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