Some defend handling of first call on flight delay
By Matthew Brelis, Globe Staff, 07/21/99
Federal Aviation Administration officials - and some pilots - yesterday defended the actions of an FAA flight service specialist who seemed to ignore a Friday night call from a worker at Martha's Vineyard Airport asking about the status of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s overdue flight.
Airport worker Adam Budd, 21, called the Bridgeport Flight Services Station at 10:05 p.m. about 10 or 15 minutes after the plane piloted by Kennedy - with his wife Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and her sister Lauren Bessette aboard - was due to land at Martha's Vineyard.
In a transcript of the call obtained by the Globe and published yesterday, Budd told an unidentified FAA employee that ''Kennedy Jr.'' was on board the flight headed to the Vineyard and that there were people at the airport trying to find out where the plane was.
The air traffic control specialist who took the call did not ask whether Budd thought the flight was overdue - a key phrase in the precise language of aviation - but instead told Budd that the FAA does not give out information over the telephone.
In hindsight, the FAA's handling of Budd's call, made 25 minutes after Kennedy's plane disappeared from radar, might have seemed troubling.
But a spokesman for the country's largest general aviation association agreed with the FAA's explanation that the call was ignored because Budd never used the appropriate words to convey that anything was unusual with the flight.
The specialist who took the call ''is probably hearing someone wanting to know where this airplane is,'' said Warren Morningstar, director of media relations for the Aircraft Owner and Pilots Association, an advocacy group with 340,000 members. ''The caller did not say the words, `There is an aircraft overdue,' or, `It should have been here at this time.'
''It was asking the specialist to read someone's mind and read between the lines,'' Morningstar said. ''In the world of aviation we deal with prescribed phrases that have specific meanings and trigger certain responses.
''When a pilot or air traffic or flight services are up to their eyeballs doing their jobs, it is the phraseology that jumps through the noise and says, `Quick! Pay attention!''' he said.
Under FAA training procedures, flight station service personnel are instructed not to consider as overdue a plane that has not filed a flight plan ''until a reliable source reports it to be at least one hour late at its destination.''
If so, then the FAA employee is supposed to issue an alert to every airport within 50 miles of the plane's flight path to check its airfield for a plane with a specific tail number. If that search fails - or an hour passes without all the airfields responding to the notice - then FAA personnel are supposed to alert a rescue coordination center.
Sources within the FAA say that officials want to talk to the specialist who took the call to get his side of the story, but that they have not ruled out disciplinary action.
While defending his behavior, FAA officials are upset that the specialist did not tell his superiors about the call when it became clear that Kennedy's plane was missing.
High-ranking FAA officials, however, believe that the individual followed correct procedures, particularly because Budd gave no clear indication that the plane was overdue or in trouble and because there was not much urgency in his voice.
FAA policy prohibits the release of information over the telephone unless the caller is in a position of authority - such as an airport manager - or is a family member or is known to the FAA.
In the case of a celebrity like Kennedy, officials might be even more circumspect with flight information, out of concern that the caller could be ''a nutcase or paparazzi'' or a journalist, the source said.
This story ran on page A12 of the Boston Globe on 07/21/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.