Investigators Exclusive: Air traffic controllers texting while directing planes

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Investigator Jim Hoffer has the details.

The Eyewitness News Investigators have uncovered exclusive details about air traffic controllers distracted on the job, including workers who were watching sexually-explicit videos and taking selfies while directing planes in the air.

Using open records law, we were able to get disciplinary documents that show air traffic controllers around the nation suspended from their jobs for texting or watching video instead of watching planes.

One recently retired New York air traffic controller, whose identity we are protecting, spoke at length about what she considers to be a growing problem.

In the last few years of her highly-demanding job, she noticed more and more of her fellow controllers often distracted by their cell phones, even though FAA rules require all cell phones to be turned off when on duty.

"I would see people talking on the phone, I did see it many times," she said. "While they were working traffic."

FAA documents obtained by Eyewitness News reveal that in the last two-and-a-half years, at least 26 air traffic controllers nationwide have been disciplined for cell phone use while directing planes. Although most of the names of the airports involved have been blacked out, we have that learned in one case, an air traffic controller was caught on his cell phone viewing sexually explicit material while on duty and then showing the images to co-workers.

He received a seven-day suspension.

In a case from last year, a supervisor received a letter of reprimand for taking selfies while responsible for all traffic on the ground and in the air. The letter stated, "Fortunately, your misconduct did not result in loss of life or destruction of property."

"With some people, it was routine," our retired air traffic controller said.

She is hoping to draw attention to what she believes is an accelerating danger, one that she claims to have never witnessed being disciplined.

"They'd say, 'hey, knock it off, put the phone away,'" she said.

Out of the 26 disciplinary cases, not one controller was fired, not even in the most dangerous cases. One controller in particular repeatedly used his cell phone for texting while guiding planes, including 10 text messages in a two-hour period and 21 in all. Despite concluding that the texting "could have had catastrophic consequences," the FAA reduced the firing to a 60-day suspension.

"There is no task that I can think of that requires more intense, repetitive continuous concentration than being an air traffic controller," retired pilot Capt. Bob Ober said.

Ober believes the FAA must immediately change the current rule that allows controllers to have their cell phones as long as they are turned off.

"If I was the FAA administrator, there would be a written memorandum to every facility in the United States telling every manager of that facility, 'If there's single controller that's caught with a cell phone on his person, on duty, in the facility, look for another job,'" he said.

In 2009, investigators found that an air traffic controller distracted while on the phone contributed to a deadly collision over the Hudson River between a helicopter and a small plane. And in 2012, 20 supervisors and air traffic controllers at Westchester County Airport were disciplined for texting in the tower.

"You're responsible for what happens," our retired controller said. "How could you do anything that would be an obvious distraction?"

The FAA declined our request for an interview, but in a statement, officials said that controllers who violate the current policy requiring their cell phones be off while at work will face disciplinary action.

We asked repeatedly whether anyone has been fired for cell phone use in the tower. We are still waiting for an answer.
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