Since there are lives that hang in the balance of every word they speak, there aren't too many jobs as demanding or stressful as air traffic controller.

The accuracy and judgment of every split-second decision they make is right up there with emergency dispatchers and responders, and of course, the men and women protecting us in the military.

Air traffic controllers must be as quick and exacting as the people they are directing the pilots in the cockpit. We've been hearing how the air traffic equipment being used is overused, outdated and needs replacing. That's what makes the people manning the equipment in a busy travel hub like New York, Atlanta or Chicago more important than ever.

JFK Airport is the busiest international air passenger gateway to the United States and is also the leading freight gateway to the country by value of shipments. It has the second-longest commercial runway in North America (to Denver International Airport), with over 25 miles of taxiways to move aircraft in and around the airfield. Nearly 100 airlines from over 50 countries operate regularly scheduled flights from JFK.

In short, thousands of lives are dependent on the accuracy of the control tower. That's what makes controller Glenn Duffy's actions last month so incredibly baffling ... and dangerous. On Feb. 16 and 17, he brought his 9-year-old twins, one each day, to his workplace in the tower.

One of those children spoke five times to four pilots on a radio frequency designated for air traffic. In two instances, the youngster is heard saying, "Cleared for takeoff." Duffy himself adds, "Here's what you get, guys, when the kids are out of school."

While the pilot laughs, telling the child, "Awesome job," Federal Aviation Administration officials were not so amused, suspending Duffy and his supervisor.

"The hair is beginning to stand up on the back of our necks a little bit," said Jack Casey, an aviation safety consultant and former airline pilot. "When you get complacency, you run a higher risk of having an accident."

While some of the air travel experts are defending Duffy, others, like former United Airlines pilot Ross Aimer, saw the danger, stating: "It's almost like putting your child in your lap in an empty parking lot for the first time and letting him hold onto the wheel."

A "take your child to work day" should be a positive experience but common sense should tell a parent that some places are just too dangerous and off limits to kids. With America engaged in a war against terrorism, one thing we don't need is another reason to raise the anxiety level at our airports.

By Jim Zbick

jzbick@tnonline.com