All Articles Leadership Pipsqueaks to pilots: What’s not being said about the air traffic controller incident

Pipsqueaks to pilots: What’s not being said about the air traffic controller incident

3 min read


It’s safe to say that most of us were shocked at the recordings of children giving instructions to pilots coming in and out of JFK International Airport.  After the initial astonishment wore off, it seems that the biggest question around the incident became, “Should Dad lose his job for handing the microphone over to his two 9-year-olds?”  Both Dad and Dad’s supervisor are on suspension while the Federal Aviation Administration figures this out.

“Nothing bad happened,” some people have pointed out.  Maybe not this time. But in the past, hundreds of people have died because air traffic controllers were distracted. And there are at least two incidents in which full planeloads of passengers died because Dad in the cockpit handed the controls over to “Lemme Try Johnny.”

I’m also concerned about the wider-reaching impact such behavior has on people’s colleagues. What kind of toll does this kind of bar-lowering  take on their own engagement and commitment to performance excellence. I find the silence of the co-workers to be as disturbing a part of this story as every other aspect.

This air traffic controller wasn’t the only one in the tower at the time. He was surrounded by a full cadre of colleagues, each one equally responsible for safely maneuvering thousands of people in the air, moving at roughly 500 miles an hour. What could possibly have been their motivation for not speaking up and protesting right then and there? And if they did, why weren’t their own standards respected?

I can’t think of anything more demoralizing and distracting to dedicated and engaged workers than to be surrounded by low-bar colleagues and supervisors. Do you suppose that someone did speak up in protest but was then clammed up with the admonishment, “Aww, don’t be a spoilsport. After all, nothing bad will happen”? What kind of culture had that supervisor setup so that a no-brainer safety threat would be tolerated by anyone — not to mention, as it seems, everyone?

Is it fair to make an example out of Dad by firing him?  The way I see it, the FAA would make an example out of Dad by not firing him. The agency will send the message to air traffic controllers everywhere that it doesn’t take the profession with the seriousness everyone deserves to expect — including the air traffic controllers themselves.

Ergo: They don’t have to take their work seriously, either.

Image credit, JHLloyd, via iStock