Their view: New rules needed to eliminate pilot distraction

To the many woes plaguing airline passengers, smaller seats, higher ticket prices, fewer flights, etc., add one more: piloting while distracted.

The concern arises from a genuinely disturbing report that two Northwest Airlines pilots on a flight to Minneapolis-St. Paul on Oct. 21 were so busy toying with their laptop computers that they forgot to land the plane. Oops.

This is not what the flying public needs to hear just as the peak travel period of the holiday season approaches. Nor was it some momentary distraction, but rather a prolonged period of inattention during which the pilots maintained radio silence for 90 minutes while frantic traffic controllers repeatedly tried to get a response from them.

The two-man crew overshot the destination in Minnesota by 150 miles before concerned flight attendants worked up the gumption to knock on the cockpit door to inquire whether, you know, they might be landing anytime soon. By then, they were over Wisconsin, heading the wrong way.

Flying, experts insist, remains the safest way to travel. In this case, there was a happy ending – all 144 passengers arrived safely and have no doubt told and retold the story of their misadventure on wayward Northwest Flight 188 many times.

But it could easily have turned into a disaster if the pilots had strayed into the path of another air carrier, or run out of fuel. Even if this were just one isolated instance of pilot distraction, it is part of a larger pattern of drivers and vehicle operators being virtually, if not literally, asleep at the wheel.

Texting while driving cars has become a national headache to the point that U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has said the federal government will look at the issue with a view toward coming up with corrective action.

Last year, the Federal Railroad Administration was obliged to issue an emergency order prohibiting all train operators from using cell phones after a train engineer in California was found to have been sending and receiving text messages moments before his commuter train collided with a freight train. School bus drivers involved in accidents have been accused of doing the same.

Flight 188 co-pilot Richard Cole told federal investigators that he and the plane’s captain lost track of time because they were involved in a “concentrated period of discussion” about the company’s pilot scheduling system and he was explaining the system to the captain using the laptop. It strains belief, but even if true, that’s no excuse.

The pilots have had their licenses revoked by the FAA for what one member of Congress called “the ultimate example of distracted driving … distracted driving at 37,000 feet.” Testifying before Congress last week, LaHood stopped short of declaring that the government would issue a flat ban on the use of laptops in the cockpit, but he later told reporters, “We can’t have these kinds of distractions in the cockpit. We can’t.”

Nor can the flying public afford to have pilots who forget they’re responsible for the lives and safety of their passengers. If it was once the case that what happened in the cockpit stayed in the cockpit, that’s no longer true. What happens in the cockpit is the public’s business, as Flight 188 makes painfully evident.

Delta Airlines, which recently merged with Northwest, says using laptops in the cockpit is against company policy and vowed to terminate the pilots.

“The flying public right now is dealing with fewer flights, higher costs, having to pay for baggage,” a spokesman said. “They certainly should expect a better performance out of the airline and the pilots than we see here.”

You think?

The above editorial was originally published Nov. 2 by the Miami Herald. Content was made available by MCTCampus.