Two Northwest Airlines pilots told federal investigators that they ignored radio calls from air traffic controllers Wednesday, while they used their laptop computers to review the company's new scheduling procedures.
Read the NTSB's news release and discuss this story on News Cut
First officer Richard Cole told the National Transportation Safety Board that he was explaining the scheduling procedures to the plane's captain, Timothy Cheney, while the plane cruised past the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport at 37,000 feet. The new scheduling system was initiated following the merger between Delta and Northwest Airlines.
The company prohibits the use of personal computers on the flight deck.
Both pilots told investigators they did not monitor calls from air traffic controllers, even though they heard messages sent by radio dispatchers, the NTSB said in a statement released Monday.
The pilots also said they did not notice messages that were sent by company dispatchers. Air traffic controllers tried for more than an hour to contact Cheney and Cole.
Air traffic controllers in Denver and Minneapolis repeatedly tried without success to raise the pilots by radio.
Other pilots in the vicinity tried reaching the plane on other radio frequencies. Their airline tried contacting them using a radio text message that chimes.
Authorities became so alarmed that National Guard jets were readied for takeoff at two locations and the White House Situation Room alerted senior White House officials, who monitored the airliner carrying 144 passenger and five crew members as it flew across a broad swath of the mid-continent completely out of contact with anyone on the ground.
The NTSB interviewed the pilots for more than five hours Sunday. The pilots denied engaging in any heated conversation during the flight, and also denied fatigue or ongoing medical conditions.
Neither pilot was aware of the airplane's location until a flight attendant called the pilots about five minutes before the scheduled landing to request an estimated time of arrival, the pilots told the NTSB.
At that point, Cheney said he looked at his flight display and realized they had passed the airport. The pilots then made contact with air traffic controllers and headed back to the airport.
When the controllers asked for an explanation, the pilots cited "just cockpit distraction" and "dealing with company issues," the report says.
"It's inexcusable," said former NTSB Chairman Jim Hall. "I feel sorry for the individuals involved, but this was certainly not an innocuous event - this was a significant breach of aviation safety and aviation security."
Cheney and Cole are both experienced pilots, according to the NTSB. Cheney, 53, was hired by Northwest in 1985 and has about 20,000 hours of flying time, about half of which was in the A320. Cole had about 11,000 hours of flight time, including 5,000 hours on the A320.
Both pilots told the board they had never had an accident, incident or violation, the board said.
The pilots acknowledged that while they were engaged in working on their laptops they weren't paying attention to radio traffic, messages from their airline or their cockpit instruments, the board said.
That's contrary to one of the fundamentals of commercial piloting, which is to keep attention focused on monitoring messages from controllers and watching flight displays in the cockpit.
"It is unsettling when you see experienced pilots who were not professional in flying this flight," said Kitty Higgins, a former NTSB board member. "This is clearly a wakeup call for everybody."
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., called the incident "the ultimate case of distracted driving, only this time it was distracted flying."
The Air Transport Association, a trade group that represents major U.S. airlines, expects pilots to comply with federal regulations and airline policies, but hasn't taken a position on the use of electronic devices by pilots while in the cockpit, ATA spokeswoman Elizabeth Merida said.
Pilot schedules are tied to their seniority, which also determines the aircraft they fly and layoff protection. Those at the top of the list get first choice on vacations, the best routes and the bigger planes that they get paid more for flying.
Following Delta Air Lines' acquisition of Northwest last October, an arbitration panel ruled that the pilot seniority lists at the two carriers should be integrated based on pilots' status and aircraft category.
The panel ruled that pilots from one carrier would not, for a period of time, be able to fly certain planes the other carrier brought to the combination.
The panel's decision affected the roughly 12,000 pilots of Delta and Northwest.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report)