All was quiet Thursday at the Stony Brook home of an air traffic controller who the FAA said let his school-age son and daughter communicate with pilots from the Kennedy Airport control tower last month, but the incident made quite a bit of noise in the halls of Washington.
“This is a stunning example of a lack of professionalism, not
following the rules, not using commonsense,” Transportation
Secretary Ray LaHood told a Senate committee this morning.
The incident was the third time in seven months that the
judgment of those who operate the nation’s air traffic control
system has been called into question and concerns raised that
complacency may be causing controllers and their supervisors to
“The hair is beginning to stand up on the back of our necks a
little bit,” said Jack Casey, an aviation safety consultant and
former airline pilot. “When you get complacency, you run a higher
risk of having an accident.”
There were no signs of the air traffic controller or his family early Thursday. Duffy’s neighbors who were at home declined to comment.
The controller let his son communicate five times with pilots just after 5 p.m. on Feb. 16 and his daughter talk twice to pilots on Feb. 17 at about 4:15 p.m., the Federal Aviation Administration said Wednesday.
The FAA said it had placed the air traffic controller and a supervisor at Kennedy Airport on administrative leave.
The agency’s administrator said the two had violated FAA policies and “common-sense standards for professional conduct.”
The FAA did not release the name of the controller or the supervisor. A union official said the two were on paid leave. Steve Abraham, a representative with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association who works in Kennedy’s control tower, said he had no comment on the case.
FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, in a statement issued before the FAA said a second child had contacted pilots from the tower, called the Feb. 16 incident at Kennedy “a lapse in judgment” by the controller and a violation of FAA policy.
"These kind of distractions are totally unacceptable," Babbitt said. He ordered a review of air traffic control policies and procedures related to facility visitors.
The children's visits to the Kennedy tower - which occurred during the school recess following President's Day - became public when audiotapes of the boy's Feb. 16 exchanges with pilots preparing for takeoff were obtained and broadcast Tuesday by WFXT-TV in Boston.
Sources said the boy was repeating what an adult air traffic controller had told him to say.
After one exchange, in which the child seems to clear a departure, the pilot responded, "Over to departure JetBlue 171. Awesome job."
A male voice from the tower replied with a laugh: "That's what you get, guys, when the kids are out of school."
In another exchange, the child cleared a pilot and said, "Adios, amigos."
NATCA, which represents controllers, said in a statement, "We do not condone this type of behavior 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."
The FAA Wednesday also suspended all unofficial visits to FAA air-traffic-control operational areas, including control towers and radar rooms, until investigation of the incidents is complete.
An FAA official familiar with the investigation said that it's not unusual for a member of the public to visit a controller facility with the approval of FAA supervisors. But only a professional air traffic controller or a controller in training can speak to a pilot over air-traffic-control frequencies and direct air traffic, the official said.
With Gary Dymski and Bill Mason