Chesley B. Sullenberger these guys were not. Whatever Sullenberger’s heroic landing in the Hudson River last January did to bolster the confidence of the flying public, the recent actions of two Northwest Airlines pilots probably erased.
The two were out of radio contact for an hour and a half while flying 150 miles past their intended destination in Minneapolis last week. The first speculation was that both pilots had fallen asleep. They vehemently deny that charge but said they were so engrossed in looking at scheduling information on their laptops that they sort of forgot they were flying a plane with 144 passengers on board.
There really isn’t that much difference. Whether they were asleep or mesmerized by their computer screens, they created a potentially deadly situation for their own passengers and crew as well as any other plane traveling in the same airspace.
On Tuesday, the Federal Aviation Administration announced it had revoked the licenses of the two Northwest pilots. They can appeal the decision, but, if the laptops are the best excuse they can offer, it probably is — and should be — a waste of time. If an appeal fails, they can apply for new licenses after a year.
One passenger on the Northwest flight told the Associated Press that revoking the pilots’ licenses “seems a little severe.” “But,” he added, “at the same time, I think they should not be flying airplanes at least for a while so they have an opportunity to think about this.”
On the contrary, pulling the licenses seems completely appropriate. Even being willing to consider reinstating them after a year is generous.
The passenger is right, however, that the pilots, and everyone in the airline industry should “have an opportunity to think about this.” The vast majority of commercial pilots probably take their duties very seriously, but they all can use a reminder of the important responsibilities of their job. According to the FAA, the Northwest pilots were without any communication with an air traffic control facility or their company dispatcher for 91 minutes. Other pilots were trying to contact them. National Guard jets were put on alert to go after the airliner. The reaction was only natural in a post-9/11 world.
The focus of this case is on the pilots, but Northwest and every other U.S. airline also should be thinking about this case. There has been considerable news lately about pilot fatigue. Do new restrictions or backup procedures need to be put in place?
To everyone’s relief, this incident ended well, but the principle of “no harm, no foul,” doesn’t apply. Despite the fact these pilots were able to safely deliver their passengers to their destination with only a minor delay, this situation opened up multiple scenarios that could have ended in disaster. The financially troubled U.S. airline industry can’t afford this kind of publicity, let alone a tragic event linked to pilots who are sleeping, looking at computers or otherwise distracted from flying their plane.