Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Flying While Distracted? Northwest Pilots Say They Used Laptops

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Flying While Distracted? Northwest Pilots Say They Used Laptops

Article excerpt

The pilots on last week's wayward Northwest Airlines flight have given their official story: They were looking at laptop computers and discussing their employer's work-schedule system.

Case closed?

Hardly. Not when Flight 188 flew past its Minneapolis destination by 150 miles. Not when traffic controllers had tried numerous times to reach the pilots, in vain.

But at least the flight crew's explanation, reported by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Monday, provides a scrap of information on a mystery that has baffled the public and aviation experts since the incident occurred last Wednesday night.

The flight's captain, Timothy Cheney, and first officer, Richard Cole, told investigators that they both had their laptops out while the first officer, who had more experience with scheduling, instructed the captain on monthly flight-crew scheduling - something that has been evolving due to a recent merger of Northwest with Delta. The pilots did not realize their mistake until contacted by a flight attendant, the NTSB said. The board's investigation is continuing.

It's possible that this incident will amplify calls for commercial airline flights to have cockpit voice recorders that capture at least two hours of audio - so more independent information is available on what happens in such incidents. Many flights already do that, but the Airbus A-320 plane on last week's Minneapolis flight had an older voice recorder that leaves investigators with only a 30-minute tape. Flight 188 overshot by so much that the final 30 minutes of the flight includes dialogue taped after the flight crew was correcting course.

"We need to move to the modern standard of having two hours" of flight time recorded, says David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, which represents airline passengers on issues of safety and service.

His organization and others focused on air safety also support the use of video cameras to capture cockpit activities during flights. …

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