Last updated: 05:00 PM ET, Mon February 08 2016

Air Traffic Controllers Caught Using Snapchat While Working

Impacting Travel | Josh Lew | February 08, 2016

Air Traffic Controllers Caught Using Snapchat While Working

An investigation by ABC News found that a surprising number of air traffic controllers have been disciplined over the past few years for using their smartphones to chat and surf the Internet while working. 

Strict guidelines?

The FAA uses very strong language in its guidelines for the use of phones while directing air traffic: “The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires that cell phones be turned off inside our air traffic control operational areas. The current National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) contract requires cell phones to be set in the “off” position when in the operations area.”

So using a phone, period, is prohibited. However, the ABC report said that since 2012, more than two dozen air traffic controllers were disciplined for using Snapchat, texting, looking at porn and even taking selfies while directing traffic in the control tower or other operations area. 

READ MORE: Debate Rages Over Privatized Air Traffic Control

No one fired

In practice, the rules might not be as strict as they sound. Apparently, the Snapchatting, selfie-taking ATC workers were disciplined, but no one was fired. So it appears that the FAA does not really have a “zero-tolerance” policy for using phones on the job. Punishments ranged from week-long suspensions to simple written reprimands.  

It is not like the texting incidents were kept secret or somehow swept under the rug by the FAA. Suspensions and other punishments of air traffic controllers are a matter of public record, so the investigating reporters simply had to look up the data and tally the number of incidents.    

Now that the media is on to the story and the flying public is aware of the issue, the FAA may be forced to put a little more muscle behind its rules and actually terminate employees who are caught on the phone while directing planes.

When texting from the control tower is actually encouraged

In Canada, texting between air traffic controllers and pilots is actually being encouraged. Though they do not use their personal phones, for obvious reasons, air traffic controllers have been sending text messages between the control tower and the cockpit via something known as “controller-pilot data link communications.”

READ MORE: Aviation Funding Debate Focus Shifts to Air Traffic Control

Why do this? It helps to eliminate chatter on crowded radio frequencies. Controllers know exactly who they are communicating with and pilots can confirm receipt of the directions by firing back a quick text in reply (to change altitude or alter course, for example). The cockpit communication systems have pre-programmed buttons for confirming receipt of a text. Also, there is a paper trail, of sorts, that can be reviewed later if needed. Messages can be double checked for accuracy, so there is less of a chance of one party mishearing a set of coordinates or directions.   

While snapchatting or texting on a personal phone might lead to suspension for an air traffic controller (though surprisingly, not termination), SMS-like messages on specialized communication networks are becoming more of a part of modern aviation. This kind of texting could actually help make flying safer.    


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