Newsmakers 2009: Hello? Hello? Northwest pilots overfly Minneapolis destination

 - December 28, 2009, 6:34 AM

Not long after Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger helped restore the good name of the piloting profession with his extraordinary water landing in the Hudson River, a pair of Northwest Airlines pilots did their part to remind the general public of its shortcomings with perhaps an equally extraordinary act of distraction while flying 144 passengers between San Diego and Minneapolis.

Although the October 21 incident remains under investigation and the two pilots have appealed the FAA’s revocation of their licenses to fly, the flight’s captain, Timothy Cheney of Gig Harbor, Wash., and first officer, Richard Cole of Salem, Ore., admitted to investigators that they became distracted while working on their laptop computers, causing them to fly past their destination airport–Minneapolis-St. Paul International– by 150 miles. Not until a flight attendant contacted them on the intercom to ask about the flight’s status did they realize what they had done.

By then, the Airbus A320 had traveled to a point 37,000 feet over Wisconsin; only then did the pilots turn the airplane around and finally land safely in Minneapolis.
Transcripts and audio files released by the FAA in November indicated that an air traffic controller twice asked the pilots why they hadn’t answered radio calls for more than an hour. The pilots first simply blamed “cockpit distractions.” When asked to elaborate, one of the pilots responded that they were “dealing with some company issues.”   

The pilots later said that they became involved in trying to determine how to use new software for submitting work schedule requests. Northwest employees have had to learn Delta Air Lines procedures instituted as a result of Delta’s takeover of Northwest last year. During the flight, Cole had been attempting to explain the software program to Cheney, they said.

Since the incident, the Senate introduced two separate bills to ban the use of laptops in cockpits. Although the proposals include exemptions that would allow electronic devices and computers used to operate the aircraft or to enhance safety, the Air Transport Association opposes such legislation and FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt has warned against overzealousness on the part of lawmakers.
Pilots and the airlines alike have raised concerns that such laws could stifle technological innovation and hinder safety.