FAA: Jets at New York airport directed by child

Thursday, March 4, 2010

JFK's air traffic control tower, located next to Terminal 4.
Image: Mike Powell.

A US air traffic controller and his supervisor have been placed on administrative leave and are under investigation after a small boy was apparently allowed to direct passenger airplanes at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

A probe was started after tape recordings indicated that a small child, which The Telegraph describes as sounding seven or eight years old, was heard directing air traffic from the airport on February 16.

"JetBlue 171 contact departure," was one of the child's directions. The pilot of the addressed aircraft responded by saying: "Over to departure JetBlue 171, awesome job." In another direction, the child says "MS 4-0-3, contact departure [...] Adios, amigo." The pilot replied with "Adios, amigo."

A man is later heard saying "[h]ere's what you get, guys, when the kids are out of school."

The age of the child and the name of their father wasn't immediately available.

An aviation official who asked to remain anonymous later told media that the same controller took his daughter into the control tower the next day, and that she was allowed to communicate with two pilots. According to another official, the two children are twins.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), meanwhile, announced that all unofficial visits to towers, radar rooms, and other air traffic control areas, would be prohibited while the investigation is being conducted. "Pending the outcome of our investigation, the employees involved in this incident are not controlling air traffic," the aviation authority said in a statement.

Administrator Randy Babbitt commented about the incident. "This lapse in judgment not only violated FAA's own policies but common sense standards for professional conduct. These kinds of distractions are totally unacceptable. 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 work force."

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which is the union representing controllers, also stated that "[w]e do not condone this type of behaviour in any way. It is not indicative of the highest professional standards that controllers set for themselves and exceed each and every day in the advancement of aviation safety."

However, Dave Pascoe, the owner of LiveATC.net, a website which keeps records of air traffic communications, including those involving the aforementioned child, described the incident as being blown out of proportion, saying to CNN that "[...] when you listen to any of the recordings, the situation in the tower is very controlled. There is no hint [...] that anyone was too busy or anyone was interrupting the planes. [...] It was very controlled, and I don't think safety was compromised, nor should anyone be disciplined for this."

"[...] I have every belief that they'd make sure there were additional eyes there. JFK is highly supervised. It's not just one controller controlling the runway. Supervisors are there, and multiple people are there making sure by looking through binoculars and at radar." Pascoe is also a pilot.