AIN Blog: Torqued: It’s Time To Recognize Aviation’s Unsung Heroes

 - January 9, 2012, 1:26 PM

After four decades in aviation, having seen the best–and worst–of the industry, I am still moved by some of the unheralded work of the folks who work in and around aviation. While the heroes of flight (yes, Sully, you are one of them) do get the recognition they justly deserve, there are others in all kinds of occupations who do amazing work for little, if any, public recognition. I would like to highlight just two entities I have had the privilege of working with (pro bono, I might add) this past year that contribute so much to aviation and yet get so little recognition. With their efforts, the new year–and the future–will be bright indeed.

The first, Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology, is located in Queens, N.Y., so close to La Guardia Airport that you can see the runways from campus. What a gem of aviation education! With degree and certificate programs in virtually every aviation career imaginable, the college does a yeoman’s job of preparing–and inspiring–aviation’s future employees and leaders. It does a particularly impressive job of educating students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and opens the doors of aviation to many students who are the first in their families to attend college.

I was fortunate to co-teach a class on current topics in aviation this last semester and will again this year. The caliber of my students was impressive, and I completed the term with renewed faith in the future of aviation. Of course, the caliber of the students and the school is no small reflection of the outstanding capabilities and dedication of the college’s administration and faculty. They work so hard to overcome the challenges that face many small, private colleges, especially aviation schools trying to sustain the technical levels of excellence needed to meet the demands of today’s aviation.

You would think the FAA would want to make their jobs easier, not harder. But no. One dismaying note this year for Vaughn and other aviation colleges like it was learning that the FAA–in a bizarre reversal of years of long-standing practice–determined that its air traffic controllers could no longer serve on their own time as part-time adjunct instructors, training our future air traffic controllers with the latest in air traffic know-how. Don’t we want our future controllers trained by the most up-to-date, current instructors? Short of the military and a few privatized towers, who else does ATC in the U.S. except the FAA?  

What prompted this bizarre change in policy? Why throw a stumbling block in front of a small aviation college in such a tough economic climate? It appears that, notwithstanding years of allowing, if not encouraging, current, off-duty controllers to teach part time, the FAA’s legal office suddenly determined that such teaching somehow created the “appearance” of a conflict of interest. Not an actual conflict, but the appearance of one. I can’t understand what the appearance problem is, and the FAA refuses to release its legal analysis. How fair is that?

On top of everything, the FAA thoughtlessly dropped this critical determination on the colleges right before the start of the fall semester, leaving Vaughn and other schools scrambling for instructors. I’m no lawyer, but it really seems to me that whatever appearance problem there might be could be cured at the FAA’s end by, perhaps, ensuring that controllers who teach aren’t involved in hiring decisions. How tough is that?

And really, don’t FAA lawyers have bigger ethics fish to fry? Wouldn’t their time be better spent advising their top echelons of the ethical–not to mention criminal–implications of, say, driving under the influence? Yes, I’m referring to the former Administrator’s forced resignation after he was stopped in Virginia driving on the wrong side of the road with a blood alcohol level above the legal limit. My students were disgusted when we discussed this in class. One asked rhetorically, “Isn’t he supposed to be a role model?” Maybe if the lawyers didn’t have their heads in the weeds, they could focus on preventing more serious ethical problems.

But it’s not too late for someone in the FAA, or its parent DOT (really, DOT, maybe this is one time you could take charge), to do the right thing and reverse this frivolous ruling.

A Better Experience for Vulnerable Fliers

But back to the good news. The other entity whose work has touched me is really a collaboration of efforts among first responders, government agencies (especially Massport but also the much maligned TSA) and private entities (such as JetBlue, which to its immense credit is always ready it seems to try something new) at Logan Airport to make travel easier for parents with autistic children. The sights and sounds, not to mention flashing lights, of an airport can wreak havoc in children with autism. After a family’s vacation was ruined a couple of years ago because of a child’s reaction at Logan, the airport teamed with Wings for Autism to help children with autism learn about the airport before a flight.

Then this year, after a frightened child with autism broke away from his parents and ran out an alarmed door toward the air operations area, the airport began an all-out training program for all employees–not just emergency responders. The purpose of the training is to sensitize employees to the special needs of children with autism.

What struck me when I participated in this training was how concerned all the participants, in particular the director of aviation and his staff, were about making the airport a more comfortable environment for these children. In a time when so many resources are devoted to catering to the top tier of frequent fliers, it’s nice to see an airport help make flying easier for some of its most vulnerable fliers, children with autism. I hope to hear that the training spreads to airports across the country, and, heck, why not the world?