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FAA confirms 2nd kid in JFK control tower

By Ed O'Keefe

Updated 10:50 a.m. ET
A second child communicated with passenger jets at John F. Kennedy International Airport in mid-February, the Federal Aviation Administration confirmed Thursday morning.

JFK Airport
A JetBlue plane is towed to a gate at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York in 2007. (AP/Henny Ray Abrams)

The same controller brought another child into the tower the day after his son communicated with at least five planes as they taxied at JFK Airport, the agency said. Officials could not confirm whether the second child was a boy or girl.

FAA also clarified on Thursday that the original child, a boy, was in the control tower on the evening of Feb 16. Initial reports by news organizations said the child was in the tower on Feb. 17, but the audio files were timestamped in Zulu time for 0030 Z on Feb. 17 -- or 7:30 p.m. ET on Feb 16.

The second child was in the tower on Feb. 17 at about 4:15 p.m., FAA said.

The agency placed the air traffic controller and his supervisor on administrative leave Wednesday amid an uproar about the incidents.

The agency also suspended unofficial visits to air traffic control towers pending the ongoing investigation. Air traffic controllers can give tours to family members with a supervisor's permission.

“This is a stunning example of a lack of professionalism, not following the rules, not using commonsense,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told a Senate committee on Thursday.

On Wednesday FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said the incidents "not only violated FAA's own policies, but common sense standards for professional conduct."

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

Leave your thoughts in the comments section below

By Ed O'Keefe  | March 4, 2010; 7:41 AM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments  
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Wow! Another visitor to a control tower! Something completely normal, and acceptable, until the media blew this story out of proportion! In other news, a child asked a question of a Metrobus driver today, while she was driving the bus. Everybody, run for your lives!!!

Posted by: vtavgjoe | March 4, 2010 9:52 AM | Report abuse

Wow! With a comment like yours I guess you did not hear the children on the "mic" to the pilots ... complete nonsense.

Posted by: gordonj1 | March 4, 2010 9:56 AM | Report abuse

Yes .. the microphone is like spider silk: a tenuous, ephemeral link through which, almost by telepathy, the heroic Air Traffic Controller expertly guides our hapless, helpless innocent-soul-laden aircraft through skies of untold hazard -- that is, until some clumsy nimrod idiot kid ruins everything for everyone.

Posted by: byxnet | March 4, 2010 10:09 AM | Report abuse

Why is WaPo following on to tabloid media crap? VVPTS.

Posted by: bs2004 | March 4, 2010 10:20 AM | Report abuse

I'm not sure what makes this story a "tabloid media crap" story. Most of our flying society trusts that their planes are being controlled by professionals who are receiving critical information between the tower and the pilot. The presence of a child on an open control circuit, especially a ground control circuit, is unacceptable. An issue in my mind is what was the pilot responding to, the reasonably unintelligible commands from the child or their own intuition? If their own intuition that is a place where planes run into each other or move into locations they shouldn't be in.

I'm not sure how one can equate a child talking to a Metrobus driver with a child talking to a pilot on an air control circuit. Visitors in the tower - sure, I agree they should be there. But not as the ones controlling the aircraft.

Posted by: LFerg | March 4, 2010 10:34 AM | Report abuse

LFerg pull the stick out of your butt. it's people like you that allow media hype to exist.

a of all, when did the child become the one controlling the aircraft? i don't really see how you got there, you know, logistic step-wise. and 2, i would think the child with the metro bus driver to be a more dangerous situation. that'd be like have the kid in the cockpit AND the control tower at the same time, heaven forbid!

Posted by: MABM529 | March 4, 2010 11:06 AM | Report abuse

Pilot responded with professionalism to instructions from this child / these children. So kids were cute and controller was there, but not demonstrating the same high standards I expect as a passenger. No place for a kid! EVER !! Let's not inflict the least bit of diversion from the pilots' concentration. Could have been my son flying.

Posted by: cameosue | March 4, 2010 11:19 AM | Report abuse

Tabloid media crap is par for the course for the Post. They have a "media critic" who can't help saturating the column with Tiger Woods coverage at every half and opportunity. And then there of course the "columnists" using real estate to score points in family disputes. It's just a blog with a masthead.

Posted by: altib | March 4, 2010 11:22 AM | Report abuse

As far as I can tell, the children said what they were told to say by controllers. The only thing I've heard that wasn't part of normal controller to pilot transmission was "Adios," to which the pilot of the Air Mexico flight responded "Adios." Not much harm and not much possibility of harm.

As a matter of fact, shortly after the Leesburg Air Traffic Center opened, the FAA sponsored an open house. Part of the draw was that kids (standing next to a controller) were allowed to pass information and instructions to pilots (after the controller told them what to say.) I remember it because I was one of the kids who did that.

Could we just stop worrying? Or maybe we could do something productive for air travel, like getting rid of the pointless security checks.

Posted by: jlhare1 | March 4, 2010 11:46 AM | Report abuse

A kid, by rote and under the direct supervision of his parent, telling a plane to take off? HORROR!

I mean, come on. It's not like he was on the plane with his cell phone turned on.

Really...if a person is seriously outraged by this, then I'll show you a person willing to expel an 18-year-old from school for having a Tylenol in her backpack.

Posted by: Goaltender66 | March 4, 2010 11:48 AM | Report abuse

Media tabloid crap?!?! And to think I was just worried about terrorists sneaking onto flights. Now I have to wonder if my plane is getting landing instructions from someone who has not yet graduated from the aifternoon nap.

If I understand the job correctly, at any given time, controllers are responsible for multiple aircraft, each capable of holding 100+ passengers. To the posters who think this is tabloid crap, do you want to be on one of those planes? Kids do not belong in a control tower, period. For an air traffic controller to use his workplace as a kiddie daycare center is criminally irresponsible and he should be FIRED. The supervisor that allowed this to happen not once but twice needs to be disciplined. What's next, kids in surgery?

Posted by: Frustratededucator | March 4, 2010 11:50 AM | Report abuse

There are certain places where kids do not belong. Places where life or death hangs in the balance.

No surgeon I've ever assisted would even THINK of letting that young a child in the OR, much less touch anything.

In the control tower, thousands of lives are at stake.

It's idiotic to say "get over it" just because nothing bad happened. Letting the children on the air was an astonishing lapse of judgement from a professional who's supposed to have good judgement from the time he enters the tower.

Posted by: ckm1956 | March 4, 2010 12:01 PM | Report abuse

Wow, the hyperbole sure is thick. Why, I'm amazed this kid's actions didn't open up a black hole in the middle of Manhattan and destroy the entire solar system.


Posted by: Goaltender66 | March 4, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse

"An issue in my mind is what was the pilot responding to, the reasonably unintelligible commands from the child or their own intuition?"

"Now I have to wonder if my plane is getting landing instructions from someone who has not yet graduated from the aifternoon nap."

Pilots control airplanes. Pilots are responsible for the safety of the flight. Pilots are not required to comply with ATC instructions that they feel are unsafe. Pilots, pilots, pilots.

The entire ATC system could disappear and all those airplanes and helpless fearful passengers would be just fine.

The control tower is nothing like an OR .. an analogy that multiple people have attempted to make.

Clearly a fear- and ignorance-driven story.

Posted by: byxnet | March 4, 2010 12:13 PM | Report abuse

A kid, by rote and under the direct supervision of his parent, telling a plane to take off? HORROR!...
Posted by: Goaltender66
Yesterday before it was revealed that this ATC makes a habit of bringing his kids to work and allowing them to transmit commands to pilots, I thought the incident was a "cute" act that was being blown out of proportion. But really if you think about could the pilot have possibly known that this child's father was sitting beside him telling him what to say? The pilot was acting upon instinct and not act that put the lives of every passenger on his plane. What if the father had left the tower to use the rest room and his son decided to do what he had seen his father do while visiting and his actions resulted in a collision? We would then be having a different conversation about this subject. If the ATC wanted to give his child the opportunity to give commands on the ATC mic, he shouldn't have used a hot mic to do it. His actions were irresponsible and the thought that he did it twice on two different days deserve the negative personnel action that he is experiencing.

Posted by: Beingsensible | March 4, 2010 12:21 PM | Report abuse

Flying around in the crowded skies is scary enough, let alone having a child direct you.
Was the child on duty when the private plane hit the helicopter with the Italian tourists?

Posted by: Try2Ketchup | March 4, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

The control tower / operating room analogy is actually very illustrative of how people perceive air travel. Sometimes a surgeon has your life in their hands, and air passengers might feel like their safety is somebody else's hands.

Pilots, like surgeons, are hopefully decent human beings who are motivated to do the best job they can at all times, and get the details right.

But if the surgeon screws up, he's not going to die. Yes, pilots are aware that passengers lives are at stake, but the pilot is also looking out for #1.

Posted by: byxnet | March 4, 2010 12:23 PM | Report abuse

"The pilot was acting upon instinct and not facts..."

Pilots act within a framework of rules, not on instinct. They will not suddenly become lost if unable to talk to ATC. They will not slavishly obey ATC instructions without thinking.

Posted by: byxnet | March 4, 2010 12:26 PM | Report abuse

from Frustratededucator:
"To the posters who think this is tabloid crap, do you want to be on one of those planes?"

Yes, that's exactly the plane I'd want to be on, especially if I knew beforehand. Because then I wouldn't have to worry about being with people who worry too much. They would all be somewhere else whining to someone else.

There was about ZERO danger to any of the passengers on those flights. The children were told what to say, and any consequential deviation from that would have been immediately corrected by the traffic controller. The pilots were not engaged in emergency maneuvers; there was not a large amount of air traffic for the controller to contend with; there was nothing going on that required split second decisions or actions by either the pilots or the controller.

There are too many worrywarts, litigious people, and paranoid people in this country. And anyone who tries to present "kids in surgery" as a logical development from this situation may need their head examined, preferably by a child.

Posted by: mytwocents | March 4, 2010 12:28 PM | Report abuse

Anyone who has listened in through their commercial airplane audio system (most passenger airlines let you do that, btw) knows that the communication part of the air traffic controller's job is extremely rote. 99% of what they do is give very boring, obvious instructions about what runway planes should go to in what order. There is no chitchat but there is sometimes humor. I've certainly heard "audios amigos" used by controllers for Air Mexico flights. To use the operating room analogy, above, it's like letting a child turn on the lights in the OR and going to let the doctor know which room number he's due in. Not like letting him hold the scalpel. No big deal.

Posted by: Thesmothete | March 4, 2010 12:37 PM | Report abuse

I'm kind of baffled by the comments on this thread, especially this one:

"The entire ATC system could disappear and all those airplanes and helpless fearful passengers would be just fine."

You are certainly welcome to form you own opinion about this incident, but presenting your own "facts" like the quote above make us all dismiss you as a lunatic.

Posted by: dgloo | March 4, 2010 12:43 PM | Report abuse

Whether or not you might personally think this story is being blown out of proportion, the controller in question broke federal law. Now, he's likely to be fired.

There are people licensed and trained to be in control towers and cockpits--for good reason. It has more to do with whether the communication between the controller's kid and the pilot was clear or everything was ok. It was night time, in the first incident. Commercial pilots do not do a visual approach, they are guided by controllers. Being cleared for landing is a very complex operation at JFK. In 2008, there were over 24 runway incursions-- near misses. So approaching, landing and taxi movement are very complex processes that require guidance. A controller's time and attention need to be on his or her job, not on a kid.

Posted by: mdreader01 | March 4, 2010 12:52 PM | Report abuse

Eons ago, Branniff Air painted their planes red, purple, blue, pink. Controllers would give instructions like, "Descend and maintain 5000, sweetie pie."

Posted by: calhern | March 4, 2010 1:02 PM | Report abuse

Is it not also true that ATCs in this situation deal with one AO at a time? In other words, the guy giving clearances for takeoffs is not the same guy clearing landings or telling planes in the air to watch out for 943 heavy who is on the same flight vector. The idea that the parent of this kid was distracted vis a vis clearing landings does not seem applicable.

Posted by: Goaltender66 | March 4, 2010 1:03 PM | Report abuse


"indecipherable message on flight from Boston to Los Angeles"

"Was that plane or planes?"

The secured pilot must rely on the professional controller.


Posted by: Paladin7b | March 4, 2010 1:08 PM | Report abuse

Just listen to the audio file, folks. The kid's voice is so cute. Wow, he's actually communicating with the pilots. So cool. It reminds me of the time I flew to Europe and the pilot let his 7-year-old fly the place for about an hour or so. It was really cute and all the passengers got such a big kick out of it.

Posted by: Nevergen | March 4, 2010 1:16 PM | Report abuse

This wouldn't merit much press if commercial aviation was an endeavor distinguished by professional behavior from top to bottom. But that's not the case.

We have pilots showing for flights drunk. We have inadequately trained and sleep deprived aircrews flying into dangerous weather, spending much of their cockpit time gossiping. We've got a crew that overflew their destination while allegedly playing around on their lap tops. We had a crash when the crew didn't take the correct runway, and the tower people (person) wasn't aware enough to stop the takeoff and get them on the right runway.

I could go on.

In that environment, there is no room for anyone's kid talking on ATC radio. Period.

Given the extremely poor judgment exercised by both the controller and supervisor, I question whether they should ever be put again into positions of trust --- where their actions are responsible for the safety of thousands and thousands of air travelers.

Posted by: Curmudgeon10 | March 4, 2010 1:34 PM | Report abuse

I wonder if this guy now feels it was worth it, just for the chance to show off his kid - which is EXACTLY why he did it. Twice.
Extremely poor judgment.

Posted by: dllydggr | March 4, 2010 1:35 PM | Report abuse

MABM529: your comment does not make sense given the role of the air traffic controller. The child is heard on the tape giving instructions to the pilot. Therefore as soon as the child spoke, the child controlled the aircraft WITH the pilot. that's how the system works.

Posted by: bbcrock | March 4, 2010 1:47 PM | Report abuse

Where was this brave young air traffic controller to hold Captain Sullenberger's hand as he landed in the Hudson?

I trust in air traffic controllers to act as collision prevention and pilots eyes in heavily trafficked or unseen areas. Example: I expect an air traffic controller to tell a pilot to lower altitude in order to not hit another plane. I expect the air traffic controller to tell my pilot what gate we're landing at, what the weather is, and what carousel my luggage will be at. I expect the air traffic controller to give the all clear before the pilot moves the plane anywhere while on the ground.

I trust in pilots for everything else having to do with the plane. Things like decision making, instrument reading, and actual flying.

Do I think that the controller was out of line? At the moment, it is primarily dependent on if this was a pattern of behaviour or if it was an aberrant act. Considering the timing, the dialogue and the role of the controller, I do not see this as out of line. I see it as a fluke, though I admit that evidence may arise to change that.

I think that it is an effective way to show a bright and capable child a possible future career. I do not say that as a specific comment on the child of the air traffic controller. I say that as a generalization. Air traffic control is a field which, in my view, requires a sort of apprenticeship.

I want my air traffic controller to know what they're doing. I would actually be in favor of a program to encourage children and teenagers to learn the field, including giving an order or two to planes in low priority fields - fields like telling the planes that they're going to be backed up from the gate now. A combination of community outreach and JobCorps. It'd have to be a requirement that the kids know how to actually talk to the pilots, and to be able to enunciate.

Make it happen.

Posted by: lextenou | March 4, 2010 1:55 PM | Report abuse

"You are certainly welcome to form you own opinion about this incident, but presenting your own "facts" like the quote above make us all dismiss you as a lunatic."

To be clear, if ATC went down, things wouldn't just go on routinely. But the in-flight aircraft would be just fine, because they're equipped with pilots. As I said previously, there is an extensive framework of rules and regulations by which all aircraft must operate. The framework remains in place regardless of the presence or absence of ATC.

And yes, I am a pilot. Cat's out of the bag now!

Posted by: byxnet | March 4, 2010 2:15 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: byxnet | March 4, 2010 2:18 PM | Report abuse

"Adios, amigo." Ha ha. Listen to the tape. The pilots are laughing.

Posted by: calhern | March 4, 2010 2:33 PM | Report abuse

Did anyone notice that the child was being told what to say? (Presumably by his father the certified controller.) Did anyone note that the child was talking to planes sitting stationary on the tarmac?
Did anyone notice that the pilots seemed casually amused by it all and were not in panic mode?
Has anyone really given this any thought beyond the hysteria created by McNews?
Unbunch your knickers America, the sky is not falling. Yet.

Posted by: OregonBuzz | March 4, 2010 2:35 PM | Report abuse

I don't like kids. I don't like to fly. But I'm with the kid who said it all correctly. I assume any person there would have quickly corrected what ever might not have been said right. I'm with the kid and think particularly after looking at his behavior in the auto thing, that Mr. Lahood is living up to the shake down spirit found in his name’s meaning- The Hood. This is absurd as is this crony politico of a National Director.

Posted by: ira1 | March 4, 2010 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Yup, OregonBuzz, more Bread & Circus for us hapless "citizens" courtesy the crusading Post.

Posted by: calhern | March 4, 2010 2:50 PM | Report abuse

It's a dumb story all right--although I am reminded of the Russian pilot who let his tenage kids fly a commercial airliner a few years ago. It crashed.

Posted by: LAguy1 | March 4, 2010 2:54 PM | Report abuse

Sorry but don't see a problem other than a rules violation of the FCC. From the audio I heard the kids sounded more professional than many of the operators I have heard when I was flight crew. And the flight crews from what I heard were in good spirits on hearing the kid. Take you kid to workday means nothing if they can't see/experience how its done. Firing the dad is too extreme unless you fire his boss and the other controllers in the tower as well. Since they were there and could have stopped it.

Posted by: hardcore | March 4, 2010 3:02 PM | Report abuse

Well in regarsds to the children in the Control Tower I am going to take a guest that it has been cleared by the powers that be to give tours. As long as they are not out of control. So instead of wasting time with this why not look at why the Seniors, Veterans and Disabiled will not get a simple $250.00 one time check this year. Since Washington has decided that we are not deserving of a cost of living increase. So tell me when does the Senate and the House stop getting their annuals raises. It seems if they did not get an automatic raise that would cover the $250 for everyone and even leave money to spare. Just a thought...

Posted by: jimmieruthj | March 4, 2010 3:03 PM | Report abuse

Don't you people understand? If the kid had told the planes to turn off their engines and drop into the ocean, they would have done it! Planes don't know not to trust kids!

Posted by: member5 | March 4, 2010 3:09 PM | Report abuse

jimmieruthj, stop trying to suck at the tit of your grandchildren you sick freak

Posted by: member5 | March 4, 2010 3:12 PM | Report abuse

Wow, can you say "Much Ado about nothing"? The kid was sitting on his father's lap, and said exacly what his father told him to, so what? It is not like the kid is watching the screen and making decisions on where to send the planes, get serious! Besides, from the sound of these E-Mail comments, I think I would rather have a kid directing my plane, then some of the commentors!

Posted by: richardhaight | March 4, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

Ok- So I agree that there was no harm no foul, and I do think it was very cute and something that child will always remember.

However- regardless of the fact multiple controllers have different responsibilities on the tower, the planes were on the ground, and the pilots enjoyed it, FAA rules are in place for a reason- SAFETY.

I do not feel the controller deserves to be fired, nor his supervisor. This incident getting as much publicity as it is will be a staple to all future and current ATC's and will almost certainly ensure it will never happen again. I think he should be reprimanded, absolutely, but not to lose his job.

Sometimes Rules are decided b/c we had to "learn the hard way" Thankfully we, the travelers, did not have to learn at the expense of lives, but the ATC's learned that even though it seemed cute and harmless, rules must be followed and in place for the safety of others.

Posted by: Starchie1 | March 4, 2010 3:41 PM | Report abuse

Similar experience level as POTUS, but more successful.

Posted by: alisonhynes | March 4, 2010 4:10 PM | Report abuse

I suppose that it's common practice for blogs, even those maintained by journalists, to include more hyperbole than one finds in traditional reporting, but when you say, "The agency placed the air traffic controller and his supervisor on administrative leave Wednesday amid an uproar about the incidents," maybe you could explain the source and nature of the alleged "uproar"?

Posted by: fembot | March 4, 2010 5:19 PM | Report abuse

Let's see. The controller had control of the frequency at all times. The controller told the kid(s) what to say, and it appears that they said it correctly. The controller was able to interrupt the kid at any time. As a pilot who flies into and out of JFK (and about 200 other airports) on a regular basis, this is a non-story by a hyped up media that knows nothing about aviation.

Think about it. Why do the Post and virtually every other media outlet get excited about benign things like this, laptops in the cockpit, and cockpit chit-chat that had nothing to do with the Colgan accident? Why do the same organizations ignore the dozens of aircraft that lose communications every day and major airliners landing on taxiways? It's because they don't know that they're talking about and they're too lazy / overworked / insert excuse here to actually do research.

The real danger is that this type of sensationalism scares the public that relies on organizations like the Post to educate them. Since the public is made up of voters, the politicians spend all their time cracking down on stupid things and they don't address the very real safety concerns that do exist in the aviation industry.

Shame on the Washington Post for even covering this, and shame on Randy Babbit and NATCA for throwing the controllers under the proverbial bus.

Posted by: rojomo3 | March 4, 2010 5:44 PM | Report abuse

Why do we want to Homoginize America? Think of the kids' benefit by tasting a little of taking resposibility, under careful professional monitoring, of a useful job.

Bending some blanket rules will help develop resposibilities more than bureaucratic control of routine details.

Where was bureaucratic FAA when the 14 year old flew across the country? (Licensed pilot similarly alongside of course.)Now I hear of plans to clamp down on pilot legal chatter when above 10,000 feet.

Posted by: Walt7 | March 5, 2010 10:39 AM | Report abuse

How many people need to post the obvious?

The planes were on the ground, waiting for clearance for takeoff. The adults were actively involved. The children were told what to say. This is not like the New York incident where the ATC was flirting and not watching his screen.

Were the adults not following the rules? Of course, and they should be reprimanded as such. But this is a non-issue, and is not newsworthy.

Posted by: Jimmy371 | March 5, 2010 10:52 AM | Report abuse

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