Wayward pilots' licenses revoked, but larger questions remain

The FAA moved quickly to revoke Northwest pilots' licenses. But their mistake raises thorny issues. Do cockpits need better monitoring? Does communication between flight controllers and the US military need improvement?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    The Minneapolis skyline rises through the rain as an arriving Northwest Airlines jet taxis at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, Oct. 23.
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These two pilots flew a bit too far beyond the boundaries of federal standards. At least 150 miles too far.

That's the message delivered Tuesday as the Federal Aviation Administration revoked the licenses of the Northwest Airlines pilots who made national headlines for overshooting the Minneapolis airport.

They said they were distracted while using laptop computers during a discussion about a new flight-crew scheduling system.

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But the FAA didn't take much time deciding that the crew's actions were essentially a firing offense.

"The pilots were out of contact with air traffic controllers for an extended period of time," the FAA said in a statement explaining its action. "Air traffic controllers and airline officials repeatedly tried to reach them through radio and data contact, without success."

The pilots, the agency said, violated a number of regulations, including "operating carelessly and recklessly."

The use of laptops in the cockpit also violated a company policy.

The FAA's announcement answers one big question – what discipline the pilots might face. The two Northwest employees have 10 days in which to appeal the revocation of their licenses, the agency said.

But other questions surrounding the Oct. 21 flight linger for the industry and for the federal government:

•Do cockpits need better monitoring, including possibly audio or video recorders that go throughout a flight? Northwest Flight 188 had an older-model voice recorder that provides just 30 minutes of audio, from the end of the flight.

•Are better alarm systems needed to warn commercial pilots who have strayed from their flight plan? It's not yet clear why the pilots missed attempts by traffic controllers and others to reach them. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the pilots said they were not aware of the airplane's position until a flight attendant called about five minutes before they were scheduled to land and asked what their estimated time of arrival was. The pilots also told the NTSB that they were using cockpit speakers to listen to radio communications, not their headsets.

•Does communication between flight controllers and the US military need improvement? According to news reports, military jets were preparing to intercept the flight when the Northwest pilots restored radio contact with traffic controllers, but the jets had not yet left the runway. It's possible that, despite concerns that the plane could have been hijacked, traffic controllers were slow to contact the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

•Were the pilots truthful during a five-hour process of answering questions from investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board? The investigators declined to seize the laptop computers used on the flight, an NTSB spokesman told the Associated Press Tuesday. A review of the computers might turn up evidence corroborating the pilots' story.

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Flying while distracted?

For more on the Northwest pilots' use of laptops, click here.

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