WASHINGTON – Authorities have removed from duty an air traffic controller who they say was talking on the phone during last week’s deadly midair collision over New York’s Hudson River, along with a supervisor who was out of the building at the time.
The Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement late Thursday that while there was no reason to believe thus far that the employees’ actions contributed to the accident, which killed nine people, such “conduct is unacceptable.” Officials said the controller had handed off the monitoring of the small plane involved in the collision to another airport shortly before the plane collided with a tour helicopter.
The two employees, who were not identified, were placed on administrative leave with pay. The FAA said it has begun disciplinary proceedings against the controller and the supervisor on duty. Three members of a Pennsylvania family on the plane and five Italian tourists and a pilot on the helicopter were killed when the two stricken aircraft plunged into the river.
The FAA said the controller at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey was involved in “apparently inappropriate conversations” on the telephone at the time of the accident. The agency said the supervisor was not in the building at the time as required.
The controller had cleared the small plane, a single-engine Piper, for takeoff and then made a personal call to a woman, said sources familiar with the investigation.
While still on the phone, the controller handed off the Piper to the control tower at Newark Liberty International Airport, which monitors low-flying air traffic over the Hudson but doesn’t actively try to keep aircraft separated, they said. The controller was still on the phone when the accident occurred. This sequence of events lasted only a few minutes.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the labor union representing controllers, said in a statement that it supports a full investigation of the allegations “before there is a rush to judgment.”