Opinion Brief

The 'Air traffic controller child' outrage

Debate is raging over the dad who let his kids direct plane traffic at JFK. Should he be fired or forgiven?

In a misguided "take your child to work" experiment that has touched a national nerve, air traffic controller Glenn Duffy at New York's wildly busy JFK airport turned over his headset to his 9-year-old twins, allowing them to direct several pilots by repeating his words. The Federal Aviation Administration has suspended Duffy, calling the February 16 incident "totally unacceptable"; now, Congress might investigate. Should Duffy, 48, be fired for embarrassing his profession and endangering already-disgruntled air travelers, or is the media making too much of a minor infraction? (Listen to the child direct planes at JFK airport)

Air traffic control isn't child's play: Letting a kid direct air traffic is "shocking for the lack of judgment by aviation professionals," says Eric Shawn at Fox News. The rule against letting guests into the tower is often ignored, but it's a whole different level of violation to let any amateur — much less a 9-year-old — direct planes full of living passengers. These kinds of distractions can, and do, kill people.
"Kids at JFK clear takeoffs?"

Give the dad a break: Why is everyone making a "federal incident" of this little bit of "harmless fun"? asks Alex Pareene at Gawker. This was "the air traffic equivalent of letting your kid sit on your lap and 'steer' the car," not actually putting your kid behind the wheel. Besides, if you listen to the audio, the kid "was adorable."
"Apparently children are not allowed to control air traffic"

This was too risky to go unpunished: The incident doesn't merit all this "huffing and puffing," says The Economist. But let's be honest, it was "an intensely stupid act" that would have endangered lives if an emergency had occurred. The FAA shouldn't "sack" the controllers, but it was certainly right to discipline them.
"Pwepare for take-off"

Bringing kids to the tower is a great recruitment tool: "As a pilot I would have no problem with such directions" from a coached kid, says Doug Hanchard in ZDNet. In fact, I'd "actually encourage" the FAA to implement an official "bring your kid to work program." As air traffic increases, we face a shortage of "high-tech savvy, motivated" controllers, so it's smart to start recruiting the next generation now.
"FAA puts two air traffic control employees on admin leave..."

This is part of a pattern of growing irresponsibility:
"In several recent accidents" — including a 2009 crash in upstate New York that killed 50 passengers, reports the AP, "pilots broke a cardinal safety rule prohibiting nonessential conversation during landing approaches." Aviation safety consultant Jack Casey says, "the hair is beginning to stand up on the back of our necks...When you get complacency, you run a higher risk of having an accident."
"Controller complacency could jeopardize air safety"

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