Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Overflying Pilots Could Fly Jetliners Again

It's too easy to criticize the Federal Aviation Administration. But this time, I'm glad it's not me who has to make the decision whether to reinstate Northwest Airlines pilots, Timothy Cheney and Richard Cole. The now famous airmen were so focused on their laptops last October that they cruised past their destination, which was Minneapolis, flying on until curious flight attendants called the cockpit, to ask if they'd be landing soon. Only then did the duo realize their error and turn the Airbus 320 - with 144 passengers aboard - back toward the airport.



In a lightning-fast response, less than a week, the FAA revoked the pilots' licenses, action that was certainly influenced by a torrent of worldwide publicity and calls for a congressional hearing to investigate the episode.

Now, the FAA and the pilots, who are represented by the powerful Air Line Pilots Association, have come to an agreement that seems to indicate that Cheney and Cole could one day fly again as commercial airline pilots. The men agreed not to fight the loss of their licenses and later this year they can reapply to the FAA for new certificates according to a story by Andy Pasztor in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal.

This is one of the rare cases in which notoriously opinionated pilots are ambivalent. None will condone less than 100% attention to task in the cockpit. At the same time, most admit that in the process of monitoring routine flights - lapses happen.

"One of the problems is the automation that exists in an Airbus, and the messages it sends to you when you get to the end of the route," one airline pilot told me. "This event never would have occurred in a round dial cockpit and I don't think people have hit on that factor enough. There's a high level of automation and advanced technology."

It is well-known in safety design that when left to passive monitoring, humans are prone to make errors. This is why airport security personnel, for example, rotate off the screener position to do another more active task, every 30 minutes. In today's automated cockpit, that isn't an option.

Northwest Flight 188 demonstrated that reality - in the process shocking millions of air travelers, who have a much different if not particularly accurate expectation of what goes on in the front of the plane. Add to that, the fact that going "nordo" out of radio contact should have launched a homeland security alert and new concerns about the distracting effect of the personal electronic devices in all sorts of transportation modes and, well, the cliché "perfect storm" does come to mind.

That's why this story ricocheted around the world.

An airline executive suggested that 90% of pilots questioned about Flight 188 would say that Cheney and Cole should be allowed to fly again and a similar percentage of passengers would say just as certainly that they should not.

The FAA has to navigate this gulf. Letting Cheney and Cole return to commercial flying could be a difficult position to justify, should either of these men be involved in a safety event in the future.

Having said that, I'd add that having lived through publicity of Bradgelina proportions, Cheney and Cole are unlikely to be guilty of the sin of complacency. Nor, in fact, will any number of pilots who saw the coverage of flight 188 and thought to themselves, "There but for the grace of God..."

That is a good thing.



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