Northwest pilots prompt look at distracted flying

Northwest Airlines path
The above image from is the path the Northwest Airlines plane took while the pilots engaged in a "heated arguement" according to FBI investigators.
Image from

The Northwest Airlines pilots who overshot their Minneapolis destination by 150 miles have prompted the Obama administration to broaden its look at distracted driving to include distracted flying, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Wednesday.

The use of mobile devices and laptops while driving any type of vehicle is unsafe, LaHood told a hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

"We're not going to equivocate on this. Any kind of distraction, whether it's trains, planes or automobiles is a distraction and we should figure out ways to get these cell phones, the texting, ... and the use of laptops out of the hands of people who are supposed to be delivering the public to somewhere safely," LaHood said.

The pilots of Northwest flight 188 told safety investigators they lost track of time and place while using their laptops to work out crew schedules. They said they were out of communications with air traffic controllers and their company's dispatchers for 91 minutes while cruising at 37,000 feet, unaware that they had flown past their destination of Minneapolis until a flight attendant called them on an intercom.

The incident "raises serious safety concerns," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chairman of the committee.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., noted that the Federal Aviation Administration doesn't prohibit the use of laptop computers above 10,000 feet and asked whether the Transportation Department might regulate the use of laptops by pilots.

"I have my own ideas about this, but I'm going to work with the folks at the FAA and our department to deal with this issue," LaHood said. "We're going to take a very close look at that entire issue."

Cockpit Voice Recorder
The Cockpit Voice Recorder from Northwest flight 188, that overflew the Minneapolis-St Paul International/World-Chamberlain Airport, is displayed at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) headquarters in Washington, Friday, Oct. 23, 2009 in Washington.
Kevin Wolf/Associated Press

The Obama administration and lawmakers have already expressed interest in targeting distracted driving, including the use of mobile devices while behind the wheel. LaHood held a summit meeting in September that brought together researchers, regulators and other experts on distracted driving.

A group of senators proposed legislation on Wednesday that would offer incentive grants to states that approve laws to combat distracted driving.

"Texting takes your eyes off the road - long enough at high speeds to travel the length of a football field," Rockefeller said.

The FAA said Tuesday that it had revoked the licenses of the pilots of Northwest flight 188 - Timothy Cheney of Gig Harbor, Wash., the captain, and Richard Cole of Salem, Ore., the first officer. Phone messages left at the homes of the pilots were not returned.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., credited FAA for suspending the pilots' licenses, calling it "the ultimate example of distracted driving and that was distracted driving at 37,000 feet."

The pilots have 10 days to appeal the revocation to the three-member National Transportation Safety Board, the same agency that investigates air crashes and makes safety recommendations. If an appeal fails, they can apply for a new license after one year.

The pilots violated numerous federal regulations, including failing to comply with air traffic control instructions and clearances and operating their aircraft carelessly and recklessly, FAA said.

"You engaged in conduct that put your passengers and your crew in serious jeopardy," FAA regional counsel Eddie Thomas wrote Cheney in a letter accompanying the revocation order. "NW188 was without communication with any air traffic control facility and with its company dispatcher for a period of 91 minutes (over 1.5 hours) while you were on a frolic of your own. Failing to comply with ATC clearances or instructions while engaged in air carrier operations is extremely reckless."

A similar letter was sent to Cole.

The pilots union at Delta Air Lines, which acquired Northwest last year, declined to comment. Earlier, the union had cautioned against a rush to judgment. The pilots told investigators who interviewed them on Sunday that they had no previous accidents or safety incidents.

Delta has suspended the pilots pending a company investigation.


AP Airlines Writer Ken Thomas and Joshua Freed in Minneapolis contributed to this report.


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(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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