23 June 2010

YOW Volunteer Airport Watcher Fired

For seven years Stephanie Nicholds was a volunteer with the CYOW Airport Watch, but not anymore.

That group was originally made up of "plane spotters", the people who hang around airport fences watching airliners and noting registrations. After 911 the airport authority had an inclination to kick them all off the airport as a "security risk", but cooler heads prevailed and the local airport police convinced the airport authority that this group of people, who like hanging around fences with binoculars, could be a great resource for keeping an eye on things and improving security. So they got organized and the plane spotters got some identifying car door stickers, some hats and a phone number to call if they saw anything suspicious. Everybody won, except perhaps potential terrorists looking to sneak onto the airport. So far so good.

The fly in the ointment has been that Airport Watch chair Nelson Plamondon has had problems with Airport Watchers in the past saying uninformed things to the press. You see the problem is that when something goes wrong on the airport there is often an Airport Watcher on hand to see it. They become the only source for eyewitness information for the press. Plamondon's policy is that Airport Watchers should not make statements to the press. That is what got Stephanie Nicholds fired as a volunteer Airport Watcher this week.

Stephanie Nicholds just happened to be on hand on Wednesday 16 June 2010 when a United Airlines Express Embraer 145 went 500 feet (150 metres) off the end of the runway on landing and ended up in a ditch. The runway was wet and so when the press cornered her Nicholds said that the plane "was hydroplaning down the runway, and all of a sudden the airplane just ditched into the grass."

The Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier International Airport Authority accused Nicholds of a "serious breach" of the rules. It was the airport authority who passed the problem onto Plamondon for "corrective action."

Plamondon indicated that ever since a similar incident two years ago volunteers have been warned not to speak to the media, something he has been "constantly reminding" them of ever since.

For her part Nicholds thinks everyone has overreacted and stated to CBC: "I think they made a big mistake taking me off the watch. I just hope they can reconsider."

For many aviation and legal people this is probably an "open and shut" situation. Uninformed witnesses shouldn't be telling the press what happened in an aircraft accident, that is the Transportation Safety Board's job. Many posters on CBC.ca see this as a human rights issue, however, that the constitution guarantees freedom of speech, especially when this person was not even an employee, but just a volunteer.

Some of the most-agreed comments:

"what's to prevent her, as a citizen of a free country with supposedly free speech, from standing outside the airport perimeter and continuing to report what she sees, to the media, the aviation authorities, or whoever else she wants to speak to?"

"I can't find any clue, where the authority finds "serious breach" ? Stephanie expressed to the media what she witnessed, there is nothing hidden. This is ridiculous !"

"Yes you should never talk to the media until the powers that be get a chance to put a spin of all sorts on whatever happens. That way the powers can really confuse the issue and make lots of money trying to unravel the mess they created."

Perhaps the point here is really that if the plane was hydroplaning then the airport might be liable for not designing or maintaining the runway better to prevent the standing water hydroplaning requires. Nicholds may have helped make a court case against the airport authority that she volunteers for. That is except for one detail - she didn't see the aircraft hydroplaning, that happens between the tire and the runway. She did see the aircraft go off the end of the runway, but hydroplaning is a conclusion that will have to be determined or refuted by the tire and skid mark evidence and probably the Flight Data Recorder as well. Hydroplaning isn't an observation that can be made by an untrained witness outside the fence hundreds of yards away.

What do you think - should airport volunteers be allowed to exercise freedom of speech to speak to the press, even on subjects they are uninformed about or should they have to agree to keep quiet to volunteer there?

CBC article: Airport volunteer fired for talking to press


Ruth person said...

It is always wise to think before speaking which Ms. Nicholds seems to have neglected doing. She could have indicated clearly that her remarks are her own opinion only and that she is no expert on the subject.
Conversely, I think the reporter bears at least some responsibility for asking a witness to report on what happened - rather than on what he or she saw.
Words not only define concepts but inform opinion and influence subsequent action.
Ms. Nicholds was wrong in stating what she saw as though it were incontrovertible truth. However, the reporter was also wrong to extract some kind of comment from someone who is clearly not an expert.

david said...

Ruth: reporters have a right to ask anyone anything that want (as long as the question itself doesn't violate hate laws, etc.). Ms. Nicholds is a responsible adult (responsible enough to be an airport watcher) so it's her obligation to know and follow the rules of her organization, no matter what questions people ask. She gave interviews to several news organizations, including the Citizen, CBC, and (I think) another TV network, so she was hardly drawn out reluctantly.

Adam: was it right to kick her out? Hard call. One thing no one mentioned is that she repeated information she heard over the radio, which (at least in 2002, when I got my restricted radio operators license) was illegal in Canada. That said, it's a law that everyone breaks, including airline pilots and air traffic controllers who blog and web sites that stream ATC feeds, so I'm happy they didn't go after her for it.

Adam Hunt said...

David: You bring up a good point it is an offence to communicate what you have heard on the radio. The appropriate part is in the Radiocommunication Act (R.S., 1985, c. R-2) and the exceptions are in the Regs, but they don't apply here.

It says:


(1.1) Except as prescribed, no person shall make use of or divulge a radio-based telephone communication
(a) if the originator of the communication or the person intended by the originator of the communication to receive it was in Canada when the communication was made; and
(b) unless the originator, or the person intended by the originator to receive the communication consents to the use or divulgence."

As you can tell my main concern was her conclusion that it was hydroplaning. It might have been, but there are many other explanations that would account for the accident, too, at least as CBC reported it. It could have been a brake failure, or a long and fast landing or a thrust reverser failure or many other things. I always think it is best to leave accident investigation to the accident investigators.

On the other hand the airport authority seemed upset that she had talked to the media at all, but then they are probably afraid of comments that could lead the airport authority to being sued for the accident.

Terry said...

When you are a member of an organisation and are identified as being a member, when you speak you are speaking for that organisation. I am a member of two volunteer organisations related to aviation and both have people who's job it is to deal with the press, but they also have different rules for members. In one case the organisation is dedicated to the preservation and display of historically significant aircraft, and members are encouraged to discuss these with the public. There are however clear areas where only specific people should be venture in terms of discussion.
The other organisation is part of the SAR operations in Canada and therefore deals with some very sensitive issues and members are trained how to deal with the press. The key part of that training is how to tell the reported who the correct person to talk to is, and for the member not to discuss anything about the ongoing incident. The rules are clear and the consequences are the same as those experienced by Ms. Nicholds.
When you sign up with an organisation whether as a volunteer or an employee you accept limitations on your actions and your speech based on the interests of that organisation, and it's rules. If you completely free speech don't be part of anything that you can be identified with.

SF said...

How stupid can it be... I'm a pilot, and sure, if involved in an incident, I know the only 3 persons I will speak too, NTSB, airport owner and airplane owner...

If I'm a bystander I can talk and say what ever I want... to the NTSB to do it's job! Like for a traffic accident, or anything else... what's wrong with this country now too much influence from the US... lucky us that we still have the right to listen to any radio frequencies (including air traffics)...

And it's a volunteer job!!! I now hope that Stephanie will continue do the same but this time being PAID by some local news agency just to report what ever she wants... Free country it is...?