Just as I think judgment in the world of aviation can't get any more bizarre, along comes a story like the one that just trickled into my inbox. The headline on it: "Child Controls Air Traffic at Busy JFK."
The upshot of the story is that a JFK tower controller evidently brought his kid into the cab on an off-school day and decided it would be fun to have him work the radio on the local frequency. You can hear the audio here and judge for yourself.
This kind of thing is what's known in poker as betting on the come. You take an action or make a decision and hope things go your way. Or maybe it should be more accurately described as betting without a clue. The real risk of doing something like this, of course, is how the mainstream media handles it.
The typical print or TV reporter doesn't understand that talking on the radio is not the same as controlling traffic. You therefore should not expect the story to be pitched as an isn't-this-cute soft feature but the kind sky-is-falling disaster story that fuels modern media. ("Hey, Mommy, I got to talk on the radio today...hey...why's Dad on the TV?")
The FAA understands this and so does NATCA. Rather than suggest that the public ought to learn to accept such innocent shenanigans as being basically harmless, both backed away from this story like the GOP from socialized medicine, decrying the controller's lack of professionalism.
But was it really? Was there real risk here? Probably not much. The pilots on the frequency seem to get a kick out of it. It's obvious that the controller had to coach the kid on exactly what to say and how to say it and ahead of that, he had to make the control decisions. But any controller who tries this better not screw it up. If it transpires that the brief distraction of coaching an unauthorized controller causes him to miss something that leads to an operational error or an accident, hell to pay doesn't even describe what will follow.
So, my take on this little tempest is this: Cute, but not worth the consequences. The easy checklist for a controller would be to ask if something I'm thinking of doing would cause my boss, or his boss or his boss to do a rug dance behind a door labeled "Administrator," give it a pass.
THURSDAY A.M. UPDATE--When you're under trial-by-media, you can only hope your court ends in one day. No such luck. One morning news show played the second day story hard, revealing that the controller had done this not once, but twice. Man-in-the-street interviews revealed a split decision. One woman said it was a good take-your-kid-to-work example (laudable) another noted that air traffic control is perceived as a safety critical job; no screwing around. (True.)
Click here to listen to the audio (MP3 file)