Air traffic control transmissions and LiveATC.net
Unlike cockpit voice recordings, which are rarely released to public, transmissions between aircraft and air traffic control can be heard by anyone with the proper equipment. In the old days, one had to be in the local area with a specialized video. Today, thanks to the Internet and a worldwide network of enthusiasts, it is easy to listen to just about any air traffic control transmission. In the last few weeks, one web site, LiveATC.net, has provided the public with recordings of one of the two children at JFK, and the eerily normal conversation the Austin suicide pilot had with ATC shortly before his death. The simple lesson is that any conversation with ATC can be recorded, and if the recording is particularly controversial, it will be widely available to the entire world.
Access differences between cockpits and control towers
Access to airline cockpits and air traffic control towers in the US are subject to many restrictions, with airliner cockpit access being extremely restricted during all phases of flight, and it is very difficult for anyone other than crew member or government official. Control towers on the other hand don't have severe restrictions, and having visitors in the control tower or other ATC facility is a common occurrence.
How dangerous was it to have a child on the radio?
The JFK incident, although good for a few scary headlines, was a clear violation of the rules, but probably not a violation that put aircraft at risk. The child was apparently having a routine conversation with an aircraft that was on the ground, with the air traffic controller directing what the child said. There was no indication that the pilots were told to do anything that was in any way risky.
Is audio surveillance a good thing?
Had the JFK incident happened 15 years ago, it is very likely that anyone other than the the pilots and air traffic controllers tuned to that frequency would have heard it. If the public found out about it, it would not have been through a recording, but through a second or third hand story that would likely escape the attention of the mainstream media.
In contrast with the past, the future will likely have more, and not less private audio surveillance from the likes of LiveATC.net. If you are a pilot or air traffic controller, the safe assumption is that anything that gets broadcast can be recorded. Given the ongoing improvements in computers, storage, and search technology, it would be safe to assume that one day transmissions would not only be recorded, but also accessible and searchable online.
Whether this kind of surveillance is good or bad isn't important. It is a reality that is happening now, and will likely continue to happen in the future. Given these trends, the best advice to any pilot or air traffic controller is to be careful of what you say on the air.
Audio of both incidents on February 16 and 17th
The the following video, courtesy of AirBoyd.tv has audio from both days. Day two starts at around the three minute mark. Clear space is edited out. The radio scanner that recorded the audio clips the audio between both tower channels as it's recorded, so not every word exists on this audio recording. This is the reason for missing audio in some sentences.