When Ethics Alarms Fail: The (Almost Deadly) Return Of “Johnny”


In “Airplane!,” the late Stephen Stucker created an iconic comic character as the chaotic “Johnny,” a deranged but relentlessly cheery air traffic control employee who treated the life-and death emergency of an endangered airliner as an opportunity to pull practical jokes, like pulling a plug to shut off all the runway lights just as the plane was making its desperate approach with a volunteer pilot at the helm. “Just kidding!” he says. This week, we learned that Johnny, or at least his copycat, was alive and well. An air traffic controller at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport instructed the pilot of Delta Flight 630, just over 1,000 feet off the ground and preparing to land, to abort the landing and circle the airport. Seconds later, Johnny II said, “I’m kidding, Delta 630. After you land, I’ve got no one behind you. Expect to exit right.”

HA! Gotcha! Except this wasn’t a movie comedy. Real people were on board a real Boeing 777, and giving false information to the pilot mid-landing was, beyond question, risking lives for yuks. The air traffic controller’s conduct  is under investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration, and you might ask why: what’s there to investigate? It’s all recorded. Whether he went mad, was drunk, or just had an attack of spectacularly bad judgment, it doesn’t matter, does it? He has to be fired. He can’t be trusted. For you fans of the concept of signature significance, the idea that certain kinds of conduct  indulged in even once are sufficient to serve as conclusive irrefutable proof that an individual is untrustworthy and unethical, this is a prime example. I don’t want Johnny guiding in any plane I’m on, no matter how many training sessions he’s undergone to rid him of his urge to screw around with my safety.

Still, there is something to investigate. If this could happen, and Johnny II didn’t have a psychotic episode or wasn’t on drugs, then the air traffic controllers’ culture, at least in Atlanta, isn’t calibrating its employees ethics alarms properly. When anyone gets an impulse to do something stupid and destructive that “seemed like a good idea at the time,” rules, regulations, taboos and training become crucial. Is there something in print, or hanging on the wall, that says, “NO joking in transmissions to aircraft, EVER”? There should be. If a sign like that was hanging in front of Johnny II’s face every work day, I bet the ethics alarms would have rung out in time to stop him from the gag that ended his career, and almost did far worse.


Facts: USA Today


13 thoughts on “When Ethics Alarms Fail: The (Almost Deadly) Return Of “Johnny”

      • Dead pan comedies with a mix of the sincere klutz and slapstick in the style of Airplane!, Fatal Instinct, and Leslie Nielsen’s Naked Gun Trilogy, are, in my opinion the epitome of movie comedies. Sad that the modern generation is inundated with college frat boy comedy or nonsense like “Epic Movie” or “Meet the Spartans” or the “Scary Movie” franchise, which are sad, empty pretend versions of the greats.

  1. I think, generally, when an organization says they are “investigating”, what that really means is

    [we’re making sure all of our ducks are in a row, there are no exigent circumstances, and we’re gonna make sure we aren’t falling into some elaborate “please fire me because I secretly have some legal leverage that will get me a payday” trap. ]

    This guy is toast as long as his dismissal isn’t incompetently bungled.

  2. I think I’ll take a break from gay-bashing to make a serious comment here. In NJ civil service we’d call this a Henry case or a Bock case, meaning that even if someone has a totally clean and exemplary record, certain acts are considered so egregious that they merit immediate firing rather than progressive discipline. Examples would be provable stealing, provable lying under oath, or workplace violence. This kind of stunt? Where hundreds of lives were affected? Good-bye, and not a single second thought about it. If the guy was joking it was so obviously beyond the pale that he is incompetent. If thee guy is mentally “off” he doesn’t belong in this job. If he was drugged up then he can’t be trusted. There is just no way around this one, ethically or otherwise.

      • I just reresearched – Henry and Bock etablish the idea of progressive discipline and are usually used as the set up to the case of Carter v. Bordentown, which is sort of the third person of the trinity when arguing immediate termination. Carter, which actually contains the language cited above, involved a police officer who, three nights in succession, pulled his patrol car to the side of the road to sleep for 2 hours at a time, and in doing so neglected his duties, misssed speeders, and failed to respond to another officer needing assistance. Initially the courts were going to give him another chance due to his relatively unblemished record, but the NJ Supreme Court decided that some misconduct is so serious, that, clean record or not, removal is warranted, and the behavior set forth above was that kind of behavior. Sorry for the mistake here.

  3. “In view of your unblemished record, we’ve decided to give you a two week suspension with pay”.

    “Ha Ha just kidding, you’re fired.”

  4. I’ve actually been on a flight where they aborted the landing at the last second . . . even heard the screech of the wheels touching the ground.

    They told us afterward that there was another plane with a medical emergency in progress right behind us. We landed normally soon after.

    Definitely not a laughing matter. That half-a-runway takeoff at full power is kind of scary.


    • I’ve been on an Airborne training jump where just over the drop zone the green light was aborted and everyone told to sit down and we flew back to the airfield and told the jump was aborted because of a momentary engine fire. Which prompted my thought “isn’t that a kind of emergent condition that implies we should have gotten off the airplane?”

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