Point/Counterpoint

Aviation International News » April 2010
March 31, 2010, 7:13 AM

Nigel Moll says:
The sticker on my car suggesting that fellow road users “Hang Up, Look Up, Wake Up & DRIVE” is evidence enough that my curmudgeon gene is thriving, but the JFK kiddie controllers provoked a reaction that clinches it. I see no factors to redeem the errors in judgment by 48-year-old controller Glenn Duffy and his supervisor that allowed Duffy’s twin nine-year-old kids to play Mr. Microphone at New York JFK International Airport on consecutive days in February, or by the airline pilot who appeared to place “playing nice” above the professionalism demanded of his line of work. With a cabin-load of passengers in the back, he accepted a takeoff clearance from a kid, playing along with this ill advised stunt (“Awesome job!” he replied) instead of staying on the brakes and demanding a proper clearance from a real tower controller. The fact that the kids were parroting dad is immaterial; a kid’s voice was issuing a takeoff clearance, and while this might have been unremarkable at Humptystump Regional it was behavior hardly befitting JFK International Airport in the late afternoon.

Real aviation isn’t kids’ stuff. Remember Jessica Dubroff, the seven-year-old girl who died, along with her “instructor,” in the crash of the Cessna Cardinal we were led to believe she was commanding as it set out to cross the U.S. in 1996?
Remember the Russian airline pilot who (the CVR transcript suggests) put his teenage son and 12-year-old daughter at the controls of an Airbus A310 before it plummeted to earth in Siberia in 1994, killing all 75 aboard?

Was anyone in danger at JFK? Probably not. Should the controller lose his job? No; his family deserves better than to pay that price for the sins of the father. A reprimand and some temporary financial sting should suffice. As a colleague of mine (himself a quiet father) suggested, if you have to boast about your kids, join the countless others who do it, harmlessly enough, with a loud voice in the line at Starbucks.

I’m all for exposing kids to the rich tapestry of professional life so they can see the map they’ll be working with as adults, but in the meantime, just let them be kids aspiring to dad’s pedestal on bring-your-kid-to-work day, and be seen to be the professional you’re trained, paid and expected to be.

Rob Mark says:
First let’s set the record straight.
Although the JFK controller did hook both his son and daughter up to some headsets to talk on the tower frequency, the kids used only the words they were instructed to by their dad. They never actually controlled anything. The dad always retained the authority to press the transmit button on his headset and immediately override anything the kids said if necessary. That means there was never a safety issue.

Was this a stupid thing to do? Sure. But if pilots or air traffic controllers were severely punished every time they did something stupid, the system might actually be much less safe than it is today, providing these folks are learning from their mistakes.

However, the way this incident looks to people outside the aviation industry matters considerably here. We have enough inaccurate perceptions to deal with these days, and surely this didn’t help. We can’t ignore that this is the real reason behind both the FAA’s and the union’s condemnation of the incident. What else could they be expected to say? By the way, comparing this incident to the kids in the Russian A310 is worse than comparing apples to oranges.

Firing this JFK controller would be a serious overreaction to the severity of the incident, although that kind of logic is often lost on the FAA. A letter of reprimand should be sufficient to make the point. And besides, the New York area employs some of the Top Guns of the ATC system, people who were there for us on 9/11. We can’t really afford to lose one more highly experienced controller here or anywhere else.

The FAA should not compound a mistake that endangered nobody with a larger error just to prove its concern. We all got it. I vote to cut the guy a little slack. 

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