Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Take Our Children to Work Day at JFK Air Traffic Control

An air traffic controller and a supervisor at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport have been suspended after an incident in which the controller allowed his elementary-aged son to clear planes for take-off.  The incident occurred in mid-February, but is just coming to light now because the audio recording was posted online.  The FAA has also barred unofficial visits from family and friends in control towers until they can review their policies.

I think most of us get on an intuitive level that letting your kid direct air traffic is not a great idea.  At the same time, most of us also get a kick out of seeing kids do adult things.  This would explain the reaction of the pilots this child was talking to, who seemed to think this was rather charming.  It also seems that this was a fairly low-risk situation.  The father was telling the child what to say, and he wasn't relaying highly technical or difficult instructions.  The Associated Press quotes Dave Pasco of the website LiveATC as saying,

I absolutely believe that this is being blown out of proportion.  This is just a completely controlled situation. A child was being told exactly what to say. . . . I think it's just fantastic that this guy cared enough to take his kid to work. How many parents take their kids to work these days?
So, which is it?  Was this air traffic controller a caring father who had some harmless, educational fun with his son when he took him to work, or is he an unprofessional risk taker who put his son's fun ahead of air traffic safety?  In my humble opinion, he's actually neither, or perhaps he's both.

When something horrible happens, you've often heard me say, people's minds go to blame.  We don't like the notion that things can be random, so we look to find a preventable reason why they happen and blame the person who let that reason happen.  Now, in this instance, nothing horrible happened.  In fact, it's likely that there wasn't much of an opportunity for anything horrible to happen that would have been caused by this child or controller.

There certainly is, however, plenty of opportunity for something to go horribly wrong in general on any given day at JFK.  It's a busy airport with lots of airplanes taking off and landing.  Odds are, someday, there will be a crash at JFK simply because odds are, if there are enough planes doing enough things for enough days, something will go wrong.  On the day that that happens, if it should coincide with the day an air traffic controller had his son at the radio, it seems fairly predictable that the inevitable blame will head towards the decision to let that happen.  It won't matter that it really had nothing to do with it, because it will look like it had everything to do with it.

The AP story about this incident draws a parallel to the crash of a helicopter and a small airplane over the Hudson River in New York.  In that incident, an air traffic controller was talking on the phone with his girlfriend just before the collision.  Was it that choice to talk on the phone that was the difference between an accident and an event-free day?  It could have been.  The fact is, we'll never actually know.  But the controller's poor choice certainly made an easy place to lay blame.

There are two things that people in positions of great responsibility should try to avoid.  The first and most important is doing something completely wrong, because whatever they are responsible for will get messed up and it is likely to affect a lot of people, sometimes fatally.  The second, which is certainly less important but, from a crisis preparation standpoint, still crucial, is doing something which, should something go wrong, will look like you did something completely wrong.  That's for your own good, and it's also for the healing and recovery of everyone else.  Tragedies are hard enough without having to wrap your mind around someone doing something incredibly foolish in the midst of it.


Edward Vielmetti said...

The incident that people remember that's similar to this was the crash of Aeroflot Flight 593. Wikipedia has a pretty reasonable summary:

"Aeroflot Flight 593, was a "Russian Airlines"[1] Airbus A310 passenger airliner, registration F-OGQS, operating on behalf of Aeroflot, which crashed into a hillside in Kemerovo Oblast on 23 March 1994. All 75 passengers and crew were killed.
Voice and flight data recorders revealed that the pilot's 15-year-old son Eldar Kudrinsky, while seated at the controls, had unknowingly disabled the A310's autopilot's control of the ailerons, which put the aircraft into a steep bank, and then an uncontrolled dive. The pilots were not aware of the partial disconnection of the autopilot, which occurred with no audible alarm, and did not regain control of the aircraft."

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