This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.
Just in time for Christmas travel comes a disturbing report about the Northwest Airlines flight that flew 100 miles past its destination earlier this fall.
The National Transportation Safety Board released documents Wednesday that, while coming to no direct conclusion about the cause of the incident, reveal how exceedingly easy it was for the Northwest pilots to fly while distracted.
Capt. Timothy Cheney of Gig Harbor and First Officer Richard Cole of Salem say they got wrapped up with trying to figure out a new pilot scheduling system on their laptops.
Company policy prohibits laptop use, but that was the least of the pilots’ offense. Pilots are paid to monitor the plane and other air traffic, not to become absorbed in gripes over personnel issues. They failed to put the safety of their passengers first.
But what is most startling about federal investigators’ findings is not that pilots are indeed human beings capable of bad judgment, but that they could check out for so long without anyone being able to rouse them.
The pilots were out of radio contact for a hour and 17 minutes. If not for a flight attendant’s intercom call after the plane had already missed its arrival by 15 minutes, Flight 188 might have flown far further off course.
One task that might have kept the pilots engaged – sending position reports informing the airline of their status – was nixed by an airline dispatcher who said the reports were burdensome and unnecessary.
But even so, ground computers tracked the plane and sent warnings to the plane’s computers. Problem was, the pilots were looking at their laptops, not their cockpit flight display where the alert messages would have appeared.
Apparently, nothing in the cockpit’s dizzying array of displays and controls was capable of jarring inattentive pilots. Dispatchers tried to reach the pilots using a voice-transmission system but the Airbus A320 was not wired to operate the system.
The plane’s autopilot sounded no alert when it reached its programmed endpoint. Radios were ineffective because controllers didn’t know which frequency the pilots were listening to.
Audible warnings might not be necessary if pilots were actually piloting the plane, but increasingly they are more system managers than aviators.
Arnold Reiner, a former director of flight safety at Pan Am, wrote Wednesday in The New York Times that “today’s highly automated aircraft can leave pilots so detached from flying that they become almost like passengers on their own flights.” He said plane manufacturers need to mitigate the growing level of automation with “an alert intrusive enough to yank crews back to reality in moments when they’re not responding to conditions.”
The safety of the flying public depends on finding additional ways to keep pilots on their toes.