Kids in the Tower

Irony is a funny thing. Sometimes "ha ha" funny, and other times just weird. Occasionally it's both.

You've likely forgotten about it by now, but earlier this year the news was all over the airwaves, Internet and newspapers. An air traffic controller at New York's JFK International Airport brought his kids along to work during their February break from school. No big deal, until he let them make a few radio calls to departing aircraft. The pilots on the frequency all seemed amused, as was I when I heard one set of the tapes. The kids did a pretty good job, even interjecting some banter such as a glib "Adios, amigos!" to a departing Aeromexico flight. I even noticed that their dad (I assume it was he) had to correct himself once, while the children's delivery and phraseology were pretty much flawless. One of the pilots even chuckled and said, "Awesome job," in his response to one of the Kontroller Kids. Besides being amused, my other reaction was to ask myself, "What the (bleep) was the father thinking?" Did he not foresee the negative reaction that would follow preadolescent voices issuing instructions to airliners at one of the world's busiest airports? Did he not imagine that a recording of the incident might find its way onto the evening news? And how did he think Mr. and Ms. Mainstream America would react?

Well, the blast of public opinion was loud and widespread. And, in most cases, painfully wrong. The fates of hundreds of innocent lives were supposedly teetering in the balance, hanging on the voice of a child. Here's a reality check: Dad was obviously standing at his kids' shoulders, prompting each transmission. Traffic was light. His duties for the day consisted of issuing routine takeoff clearances and telling the pilots when to switch to the next controller. Like a pilot's job, most of the controller's tasks that day were rote-it's when something goes wrong that his experience and split-second decision-making is needed to save lives. We saw that on both ends of the radio calls with US Airways Flight 1549-the "miracle on the Hudson." But frankly, the calls these kids made (and remember, Dad was right there, if needed) were no more complex than announcing the next "Now Serving" number at a not-so-busy ice cream parlor.

The pilots knew it, and recognized what was going on with good humor. One muttered, "Wish I could take my kid to work." But the FAA was less amused and suspended the controller and his supervisor. The controllers' union condemned the incident as unprofessional and not in keeping with the high standards of safety that all controllers are supposed to strive for-or something like that.

Here's the big irony. The parent-controller in question was a former union representative. He became well known in the past for his high-profile stance on how stressful his job is and his characterizations of the high levels of skill and precision a controller must exhibit. To leverage his union's position, the controller's public critiques of the FAA included plenty of references to how vital professionalism is to air safety. It would have been interesting to have seen union officials' reactions behind closed doors when the story of their member's kids "taking over" hit the media. In public, the union wasted no time tossing their former champion to the piranhas. What else could they do?

In the days following the incident, most people who are familiar with how air traffic control works had the same reaction I had-mild amusement at the tapes and bewilderment that the controller would place his career in such jeopardy. Many pilots departing JFK showed their support for the controller by ending their final radio transmissions to the tower with "Adios, amigos." My personal expectation-and hope-is that now that the fervor has abated, a seasoned, professional controller will be able to quietly return to the job while his kids look forward to summer vacation.

Preferably at camp.

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