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