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Jim Lewis
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Safety Put at Risk Due to Air Traffic Control Complacency

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An air traffic control worker twice brought their kid to work in the control tower at John F. Kennedy International Airport (the sixth busiest airport in the U.S.). The worker allowed their child to radio instructions to pilots. This may seem harmless on the surface, but we have to remember that an air traffic controller plays a key role in keeping the passengers safe on an airplane. Any type of complacency can lead to a major loss of life in an airplane crash.

"This is a stunning example of a lack of professionalism, not following the rules, not using commonsense," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Here’s a video of a CBS news report discussing the air traffic controller incident at JFK…


The problem is that allowing your child to send out instructions to pilots creates the perception that the job of an air traffic controller is not complicated and can be done by anyone, even a small child. What if other air traffic controllers mimic this activity or approach the job with a mindset that the job is extremely easy and shouldn’t be taken seriously? We can’t have that kind of mindset when it comes to aviation oversight and safety.

Unfortunately, complacency appears to be spreading in the air traffic control field. Back in October of 2009, air traffic controllers in Minneapolis handed off responsibility for a Northwest Airlines jet without alerting the next air traffic controller that they had been unable to make radio contact with the plane, according to the Chicago Tribune. Another example is an air traffic controller at Teterboro Airport in August of ‘09 handed off a private plane to controllers at a neighboring airport, but failed to correct the plane’s pilot when he read back the wrong radio frequency. Fortunately, these lapses in judgment didn’t result in an airplane wreck, but that may not always be the case in the future.

These types of mistakes cannot be tolerated. Our lives are needlessly being put at risk. Fortunately, the FAA is trying to tackle the problem by initiating a new program that encourages air traffic controllers to report safety problems, including their own mistakes. This will alert the FAA to trends that can be identified and resolved in order to prevent future safety issues. Air traffic controllers who take advantage of this program will not be punished for the mistakes they make. Pilots have had a similar program for years.

Will this resolve the problem? No one knows for sure, but it’s a good first step.

About the Editors: Shapiro, Cooper, Lewis & Appleton personal injury law firm (VA-NC law offices ) edits the injury law blogs Virginia Beach Injuryboard, Norfolk Injuryboard, and Northeast North Carolina Injuryboard as a pro bono service to consumers.

1 Comment

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  1. Joe B says:
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    This one of the most uninformed blogs I have read on this incident.

    First of all, it was clear the father told the kids what to say. The father told the planes to line up on the runway (position and hold) and the kid cleared them for take off- when told to by his dad. The kid told them to switch to departure – when told to by his dad.

    Second, the controllers used to have a way to notate if a flight had or had not checked in on their frequency – flight progress strips. Know with URET, which is a separate computer next to the radar screen, controllers no longer have an efficient method for notating whether or not a flight has checked in. It was also several supervisors fault that no one higher up was notified, not the controllers.

    Finally, the Teterboro controller gave the correct frequency, the pilot failed to read it back correctly at the same time as Newark tower was calling on the shout line (loud speaker in the tower cab). So if you can listen to two people’s conversations at the same time and pick out each and every single number, then feel free to apply to be a controller.

    There is a lot more to this job than you think. Some times are easy to work (when the father let his kid talk) and others are tougher. If it was busy traffic or something was about to happen – you can bet your next three paychecks the kid would have been pushed out of the way while the father regained control of the situation.