Wayward pilots were focused on laptop screens not cockpit displays, raising new safety worries

By Joan Lowy, AP
Tuesday, October 27, 2009

New safety worry: Laptops, devices in the cockpit

WASHINGTON — Federal investigators declined to seize and review the laptop computers that distracted two Northwest Airlines pilots so much that they didn’t notice it was time to land their plane, and instead flew 150 miles past their destination.

The pilots of Northwest flight 188 told the National Transportation Safety Board that they were so engrossed in a complicated new crew-scheduling program on their laptops — a cockpit violation of airline policy that could cost them their licenses — that they lost track of time and place for more than an hour, until a flight attendant on an intercom got their attention.

By then, the Airbus A320 with its 144 passengers and five crew members had cruised on autopilot past its Minneapolis destination and was over Wisconsin, at 37,000 feet. It turned out the plane’s radio was still tuned to a frequency used by Denver controllers, even though the aircraft had flown beyond its reach.

The NTSB has not taken or examined the laptops that the pilots were using, spokesman Ted Lopatkiewicz said Tuesday.

“The pilots said they were using them. So I don’t know what any examination of them” would do to further the investigation, Lopatkiewicz said.

Delta Air Lines Inc., which acquired Northwest last year, has suspended the two pilots pending an investigation. The FAA is also investigating and has warned Cheney and Cole their pilot licenses could be suspended or revoked.

Capt. Lee Moak, chairman of Delta’s pilots’ union, said in an interview on Tuesday that he’s concerned the NTSB’s disclosure of the pilot statements will hurt voluntary safety programs meant to allow pilots to come forward with safety concerns.

“We have an ongoing investigation and we shouldn’t have a rush to judgment,” Moak said.

The NTSB said the pilots — Richard Cole of Salem, Ore., the first officer, and Timothy Cheney of Gig Harbor, Wash., the captain — denied they had fallen asleep, as aviation experts have suggested. Instead, Cole and Cheney said they both had their laptops out while the first officer, who had more experience with scheduling, instructed the captain on monthly flight crew scheduling.

The incident last Wednesday night comes only a month after Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood held a meeting in Washington on distracted driving, bringing together researchers, regulators and safety advocates in response to vehicle and train accidents involving texting and cell phone use.

While Cole and Cheney were able to turn their plane around and land safely, pilots and aviation safety experts said the episode is likely to cause NTSB and the Federal Aviation Administration to take a hard look at the use of laptops and other personal electronic devices in the cockpit.

There are no federal rules that specifically ban pilots’ use of laptops or other personal electronic devices as long as the plane is flying above 10,000 feet, said Diane Spitaliere, an FAA spokeswoman.

Delta said in a statement that using laptops or engaging in activity unrelated to the pilots’ command of the aircraft during flight is strictly against the airline’s flight deck policies. The airline said violations of that policy will result in termination.

AP Airlines Writers Harry R. Weber in Atlanta, Dave Koenig in Dallas and Joshua Freed in Minneapolis contributed to this report.

On the Net:

National Transportation Safety Board: www.ntsb.gov

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