The Voice is not in Charge

I can tell when there’s been an aviation-related incident in the press by the greetings (e.g. the questions) that I get when I walk into the office. In today’s case, it was the ATC instructions given by a controller’s visiting child at JFK tower. I had only glanced at a web-based story before heading to work, and had not heard the tower voice transcription yet.

What do connected voices think?

First, there’s a statement over at the AVSIG blog which duly points out that we live in an age past any aviation-related indiscretions due to our ongoing (and probably irrational) national paranoia over the last 9 years. Disappointing as though that may be, it’s the present reality.

Then there’s deltamike172. He’s a center controller, so I really value his perspective. He makes it clear that the kid was never in control, and was just relaying instructions. The controller was the one issuing clearances and bearing their responsibility, the kid was simply the delivering them. While perhaps it “looks” bad, it’s completely immaterial with respect to safety.

Then there’s Jetwhine. Same point; despite appearances, there’s simply no safety issue. The controller is still the one in control.

This evening, I got a chance to listen to the recording. Clearly, the child’s voice is relaying simple clearances provided by the controller. That’s all. There’s no safety compromise I can see. Bad judgement with respect to the national paranoia with airplanes? Perhaps. But not a safety problem.

Just fuel for more directed outrage on the part of the press, that’s all…

What the press can’t/won’t tell you is this: Experienced air traffic controllers are in desperately short supply at the moment. Waves of post-PATCO controllers are retiring, and there aren’t enough in the pipeline to make up the difference. If we are to level blame at one controller by threatening his job for simply offending our sensibilities, then all we’re really doing is to decrease safety by reducing the pool of experienced controllers. Or even potential ones.

As a society, we’re really superb at leveling blame. Offering useful solutions? Not so much.

Update: It would appear that one supervisor and one controller at JFK tower are suspended pending investigation. Note that the airport already has a runway out of service for construction, which was already going to raise the tower workload.


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