Northwest pilots' mishap highlights delay in new cockpit rules

Northwest pilots who flew past Flight 188's destination by 150 miles aren't the first to overshoot. Despite other such incidents, new rules on pilot fatigue and cockpit oversight are not yet in place.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    The Cockpit Voice Recorder from Northwest Flight 188, which overflew the Minneapolis-St Paul airport, is displayed at the National Transportation Safety Board headquarters in Washington Friday.
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This week's Northwest Airlines pilots isn't the first to overshoot its landing in the past couple of years – a fact that raises a wider question for air safety: Are regulators also falling down on the job?

The Minneapolis incident comes as members of Congress have been pressing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to set rules on pilot fatigue and professionalism in the cockpit.

FAA administrator Randolph Babbitt recently told lawmakers that his agency is working as fast as it can. "We just set a three-minute mile" in putting together draft regulations, he told a House subcommittee on aviation last month.

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But questions about cockpit safety are recurring ones for the nation's airlines, not something fresh on the FAA radar screen.

The Minneapolis case is notable because a major carrier, not a small regional airline, is involved. And the incident has garnered national attention for its eye-popping details. Flight 188 from San Diego overshot its destination by 150 miles on Wednesday night, as flight controllers tried in vain to contact the crew for more than an hour.

The plane was flying over Eau Claire, Wis., and the Air National Guard had put fighter jets on alert to possibly intercept the plane, by the time it finally turned around for a safe landing of its 144 passengers at Minneapolis, according to news reports.

"The crew stated they were in a heated discussion over airline policy and they lost situational awareness," according to a statement released by the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the incident. The plane's black box was brought to Washington Friday, but the cockpit recorder is an older model that contains only the last 30 minutes of conversation, according to reports.

Some aviation experts express doubt about the plausibility of the initial explanation from the flight crew. At the very least, it would be unprofessional to engage in an argument when a plane is nearing its destination. The pilots, who have been temporarily suspended, will be interviewed next week.

Whether the explanation lies in bickering, sleepy pilots, or something else, the incident has raised new concerns about professional conduct in the skies.

The incident is not an isolated case. In 2008, sleeping pilots overshot their destination on a flight from Honolulu to Hilo, Hawaii, but then landed safely. In fatal crash of a Colgan Air flight near Buffalo, N.Y., earlier this year, both fatigue and unprofessional banter in the cockpit may have played a role.

At the hearing last month on Capitol Hill, some lawmakers voiced frustration that new regulations are not yet in place.

"We need things to be done now," said Rep. Laura Richardson (D) of California. "We have people like myself and many people here in this room who are traveling every single day."

In the case of fatigue, virtually all parties agree that new rules are needed to bring 50-year-old regulations up to date. On the wider issue of professional behavior, much can be achieved through better monitoring of flight crews, mentoring programs, and enforcing existing codes of conduct. But this too may require a strong effort by the FAA, safety experts say, not just voluntary actions by the airlines.

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