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February 28, 2012

Debunking the Sleeping Westchester Airport Air Traffic Controllers Story

Westchester County Airport's control tower, which Fox 5 reports will be responsible for the apocalypse.
Westchester County Airport's control tower, which Fox 5 reports will be responsible for the apocalypse.
February is a sweeps month, which means it’s time for local TV stations to inject their investigative reporters with superlative-filled syringes and push them out into the field to harvest the most over-the-top stories they can carry, all in the name of boosting ratings.

Perhaps there are no two subjects that piss off local news viewers more than than (1) malfeasance by government employees and (2) modern air travel. Combining these topics into one story, complete with visions of Michael Bay-esque fireballs and death tolls in the hundreds, is perhaps the holy grail of local sweeps-month reporting.

So last week, Joe Walden from New York’s Fox 5 fueled up the trusty news van with a tank of hyperbole and ventured up to the city’s northern suburbs for Westchester County Airport, where he was met by all sorts of dastardly wrongdoing that could potentially kill every man, woman and child in the tri-state area.

First, Walden provides some background on the airport itself…

A growing destination for seven different commercial airlines, from JetBlue to US Air.

Actually, airlines have been leaving HPN. Air Canada and American Eagle dropped service in 2010, and AirTran will end service later this year. The number of flights at the airport has been pretty flat over the past few years, according to DOT stats. The well-to-do NIMBYs near the airport won’t allow it to grow.

And it’s one of the busiest airports in the entire country serving the corporate world.

I guess by “corporate world” he means bizjets. But even then, HPN falls barely into the country’s top 20 airports in general aviation movements. Nearby Teterboro is far busier.

Cue a dark silhouette of an informant who shares photos and video shot inside the airport’s control tower showing employees sleeping and using personal computers. In a digitally altered voice, this disgruntled employee tells us this is essentially the most egregious breach of responsibility in the history of aviation, or perhaps, the entire world!

But wait, what’s that? Buried three minutes minutes into the story, some reasoning: The tower’s elevator has been broken for nearly a year and there’s no money to fix it, so the FAA is allowing Westchester’s controllers to use one side of the tower cab as a temporary break room. So wait, it is on the up-and-up?

Maybe, or maybe not. The informant, who himself is obviously using a contraband cellphone camera to rat these guys out, claims they’re using these devices at their actual workstations, while on duty. There is no way to verify this.

Cue another outraged whistleblower, Anne Whiteman, who quit her ATC job in Dallas because she thought it was unsafe. “We had a controller that actually fell asleep and you can hear him snoring over the frequency because he fell over and keyed his microphone button,” she said. Which is terrible, but as far as I can tell, nothing of the sort has not been reported at Westchester.

So what happens in an environment where, as Fox 5 anchor Dari Alexander puts it, “Sometimes it’s hard to tell when work ends and playtime or even naptime begins”?

Walden’s first example: In 2009, a small plane collided with a tour helicopter over the Hudson River, killing all nine people on both aircraft.

The controller, based at Teterboro Airport, was found to be working alone, yet on the phone conducting personal business.

While this is true, the collision had nothing to do with the air traffic controller. The pilot of the plane was no longer on Teterboro’s frequency, so even if the controller had noticed an impending collision, there’s nothing he could have done about it. Neither the NTSB nor FAA investigations of the accident cited the Teterboro controller’s actions as a cause. Basically, the pilot of the plane wasn’t paying attention to his surroundings and rear-ended the helicopter.

Later, Walden also cites a 2011 crash in which a small plane went down while urgently attempting to return to Westchester, a tragedy in which a father, his wife, a daughter and her friend were all killed. The report tries to imply that because the head controller was not in the tower’s cab at the time — not that the cab was unmanned, but this certain person was not in the cab — perhaps their lives could have been saved. While a definitive cause for the crash has not been determined, blaming a crash most likely caused by mechanical failure on air traffic controllers means perhaps that the reporter has no idea what air traffic controllers actually do.

Let’s ask a retired NTSB investigator, Alan Yurman, for some strained analogies!

“It’s sort of like a traffic cop, a traffic cop at school when it’s busy directing traffic and all of a sudden he decides, ‘Oh, the traffic’s not that bad. I’m gonna go in my car and take a nap’ and some little kid comes out of school ’cause he’s called home or something, and walk across the street and gets hit by a car. Is that ok?”

Well, no, that isn’t ok, in fact that would be horrible. But there aren’t any school children flying planes in or around Westchester. Controllers in towers basically keep planes on or close to the ground from bumping into each other. Pilots are not helpless without controllers, and are well trained to operate without them. Controllers just help things move more smoothly at busier airfields and add an extra set of eyes in case someone in the cockpit makes a mistake. In fact, off the top of my head I can recount several examples of air traffic controllers who caused deadly or nearly-deadly accidents while awake and not playing with their cellphones, but I don’t know of any caused by controllers who were asleep.

Let’s wrap this up with an outraged politician who can use his or her office to get to the bottom of all this. Nah, a State Assemblyman won’t cut it, we’ll need some big guns. U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer loves using aviation issues to get his name in the news, but, oh, maybe he’s not available. Next best thing: U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY).

“These images are extremely disturbing. If that is indeed the case, then our air traffic controllers falling asleep on the job has to be reviewed and investigated in full,” says Gillibrand in the report.

I have a better idea, Senator: Find out why the FAA doesn’t have enough money to fix a godforsaken elevator, which, you’ll remember, is why these guys are hanging out in the control tower cab to begin with. Doesn’t the lack of an elevator in a multi-story federal building violate some ADA, OSHA and/or labor regulations? And is the FAA overlooking repairs on anything more critical?

Instead of blaming the faceless men and women who are doing their jobs, maybe we should be reporting on the guys who are in charge of the purse strings.