FAA: Military should have been alerted sooner of lost contact

Airline flight
This radar image shows the route taken by a Northwest Airlines plane when it overflew the Minneapolis airport by 150 miles and had to turn around. Officials say the crew was engaged in a "heated discussion" and lost track of where they were.
Image courtesy of Flightaware.com

The Federal Aviation Administration said Friday that its air traffic controllers should have contacted air defense officials much sooner in the case of a Northwest Airlines jet last month that flew past its destination.

FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said air traffic controllers should report to the Domestic Events Network at the North American Aerospace Defense Command 5-10 minutes after losing contact with a plane.

The Domestic Events Network was set up following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to track when an aircraft deviates from its path or otherwise exhibits suspicious behavior.

The FAA plans to improve air traffic controller training to make sure an incident like Northwest Flight 188 on Oct. 21 doesn't happen again, Babbitt said. In that case, NORAD was told of the incident 69 minutes after air traffic controllers had initially lost contact with the pilots.

"We could've done better," Babbitt said during a news conference. "We should have been and could have been more agile."

Air traffic controllers tried to re-establish contact with the plane dozens of times, Babbitt said, but officials should have also been communicating with NORAD early on.

"What was overlooked was the step that raised it to the Domestic Events Network," he said.

The two pilots on the Northwest flight have had their licenses revoked, though both have appealed the revocation. They have said they were distracted by their laptops.

Babbitt said the pilots were out of contact with air traffic control for a total of 77 minutes. The jet flew 150 miles past Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport before turning around.

Military officials have said they had fighter jets ready to take off but were notified just four or five minutes later that the FAA had reestablished contact with the pilots.

FAA officials said losing contact with a plane is a common occurrence and not always cause for alarm. Sometimes pilots are on the wrong radio frequency or are distracted. But the FAA usually notifies the military much sooner when they can't re-establish radio contact, said Hank Krakowski, chief operating officer of the FAA's Air Traffic Organization.

"This happens about seven times a day where you at least temporarily lose contact with an aircraft," Krakowski said. "What was unusual about this one, what started to catch people's attention is a jetliner usually starts its descent for landing about 100 miles out."

Instead, Northwest Flight 188 stayed at cruising altitude.

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