What’s behind media frenzy over controller errors?

What brought about the heavy media coverage of the errors by air traffic controllers?

Print and electronic media made this their lead articles for days. Members of Congress demanded answers from the FAA and Department of Transportation. The top manager of air traffic at the FAA “resigned” and at least two controllers have been discharged. The FAA has changed controller work rules and added controllers at certain facilities. The controllers union and FAA are touring facilities to talk with controllers. This — and more — even though there were no fatalities, no accidents, no traffic delays.

The controllers were wrong, but errors are made by everyone. Newspapers make errors. Television and radio newscasts make errors. Hospitals and doctors make errors. Pilots make errors. There have been incidents of both crew members in a passenger-carrying airplane going to sleep and controllers trying to awaken them.

Why, then is there a media frenzy? Where these events occurred was the first issue to bring the actions to the foreground. It was Reagan Washington National Airport, a facility in an area where there is constant vigilance for security. Had this occurred any place else —and it no doubt has — there would have been little or no attention given by media.

Next, a medical flight with an ill person aboard was involved. Interest rose. And, in at least one incident, a prominent person was involved. More and more, the media sought out items, events, and people on which to report.

The controller issue had everything the media wants — who, what, where, and a reluctance — still — by many to accept flying. This became a rush for media to gather and report even the smallest items. I have worked for and with major print and electronic media since my junior year in high school and quickly learned news is what the media makes it. The primary point is to bring attention to subjects that will bring the biggest audiences.

Such is the workings of a free press and competitive efforts to get out information. All the competition and freedom to gain from it is what keeps media free. Other events will soon move the controller issue away from media interest. And hundreds of thousands of pilots will continue doing what they do regularly: Land safely at thousands of airports without talking to any controller.

Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.


  1. Jim Taylor says

    Joe’s hit the nail on the head. The average person (ie, non-pilot) has no idea how “controllers” control and how pilots fly. They think every airport has a tower or at least some sort of positive control all the way to the ground, every flight has a flightplan and are stunned to learn that we can actual make a flight from point A to point B without ever talking to ANYBODY, let alone AN AIRLINER!

    I bet there wouldn’t be 5 people onboard the first airline flight of the morning coming out of my home airport if they knew that THERE IS NO ONE IN THE TOWER AT 530AM- it opens at 6.

    Heaven help us!

  2. Charles McKinney says

    They just want some company . Most people in those jobs have an extra full time job so they need to sleep so they need the extra person so at least one can stay awake.

  3. Joel Dubey says

    The reason this was such a big deal is that most people think that if a controller falls asleep at the airport then NO ONE is guiding the plane to ensure it doesn’t hit another plane. Now pilots konw that this is not the case, but the average person has no idea. To them this plane was “flying blind” with only a “helpless” pilot to ensure that it didn’t hit a plane in the air or on a runway.

    From the average person’s perspective, this situation was extreme and lift threatening. Since when has the news media ever tried to report the facts that would calm the histeria instead of stoking the flames?

    The worst thing is that the top manager for the FAA air traffic division lost his job for something that he had absolutely no control over.

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