Correction to This Article
This article about the suspension of a Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controller and supervisor after a February incident in which a child was allowed to direct flights at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, mischaracterized events in a separate air traffic incident. The article said that the National Transportation Safety Board initially blamed an air traffic controller and a supervisor in an August mid-air collision between a small plane and a tourist helicopter over New York's Hudson River. The agency did not assign blame, and the investigation is ongoing.

FAA suspends controller, supervisor after boy directs flights from JFK tower

An air traffic controller and supervisor are under investigation after the controller brought his child into work and allowed him to direct flights at JFK.
By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 4, 2010

A Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controller and supervisor were placed on administrative leave Wednesday after allowing a child to direct flights at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport on Feb. 17.

The agency also suspended all unofficial visits to air traffic control towers pending an investigation of the incident. The FAA will review its policy on allowing visitors into the towers.

"This lapse in judgment not only violated FAA's own policies, but common sense standards for professional conduct," FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said in a statement. "These kinds of distractions are totally unacceptable. We have an incredible team of professionals who safely control our nation's skies."

Audio recordings first obtained by the Web site, which tracks air traffic control communications, revealed that the child communicated with at least five flights while he was with his father in the air traffic control tower at JFK.

"JetBlue 171, contact departure," the unidentified child told one flight.

"Over to departure, JetBlue 171, awesome job," a pilot said in response. Then a man's voice is heard: "That's what you get, guys, when the kids are out of school."

Feb. 17, a Wednesday, fell during a week-long Presidents' Day vacation for New York-area schoolchildren.

In another instance, the boy ended communication with a Mexican pilot by signing off, "Adios," against agency protocol.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association criticized the controller and supervisor.

"We do not condone this type of behavior in any way," NATCA spokesman Doug Church said. "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 JFK incident follows serious disagreements between NATCA and the National Transportation Safety Board regarding last summer's midair collision between a small plane and a tourist helicopter over the Hudson River. The NTSB initially blamed the crash on the behavior of an air traffic controller and his supervisor in a nearby New Jersey control tower, but it has yet to issue its final conclusions.

A 2009 workplace survey by the Partnership for Public Service ranked the FAA 214th out of 216 federal agencies, with workers giving particularly poor marks to their immediate supervisors and agency leaders.

A Government Accountability Office study released in December concluded that the FAA's poor rankings might hurt its ability to recruit and retain enough employees in the coming years. Thirty-eight percent of FAA employees will be eligible to retire by 2013, the GAO said. The percentage of positive responses from agency workers regarding communications issues and involvement in the decision-making process was up to 19 points lower than at other agencies, the report said. But the GAO report credited the FAA with drafting a new workforce plan that should help improve future rankings.

Union officials said that the survey was taken amid disagreements regarding collective bargaining rights and that morale has improved since the start of the Obama administration.

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