FAA Is Right to Chastise Controller, Albeit Better Late Than Never

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JFK AirportIt’s hard not to smile when listening to the audio of a 10-year-old boy radioing instructions to pilots at New York’s JFK Airport several weeks ago. The story made headlines on Tuesday after Boston TV station WFXT-TV broke the news of an air-traffic controller, who allowed his young son to repeat his commands to pilots at one of the nation’s busiest airports.

The Federal Aviation Administration had no choice but to suspend the air-traffic controller and his supervisor, even though no incident occurred, citing a serious breach of protocols and lack of common sense standards. The controller’s own union denounced his actions.

No question the controller put hundreds of airline passengers at risk, even if that risk was very low. Coincidentally, those who were present and heard the tapes were very impressed with the child’s professionalism and knowledge of controller lingo.

The question right now is would the FAA still discipline the controller if it hadn’t heard about the incident on the news? Most would assume that the FAA has various checks and balances put in place to monitor controller actions and customer safety. That can be debated either way however. The irony of it all is that the same controller brought his young daughter into the control tower the very next day to transmit radio messages.

The FAA needs to get ahead of this story before it breaks bigger. Initiating an investigation into JFK’s tower operations is a logical and necessary first step. It must however work to address the fact that it has authority over its tower controllers, at all times. A major misstep like this only undermines its authority to lead not to mention passenger confidence in airline travel.

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