October 30th, 2009 at 03:52am
Remember the plane that went AWOL last week? The one where the pilots couldn’t get their story straight as to whether or not they had been having an argument or been sleeping when they flew past their destination and ignored calls from air traffic controllers?
Yes? You do? Great. Well, as if that wasn’t bad enough, it has since come to light that, not only were the pilots breaking company policy by using laptops in the cockpit and having a rather passionate training session with the company’s new crew-scheduling program (I would have thought that missing the airport and not noticing it for an hour was a big enough breach of company policy), but that the Federal Aviation Administration also broke their own procedures relating to unresponsive aircraft.
The Federal Aviation Administration violated its own rules by taking more than 40 minutes to alert the military after losing communication with a Northwest Airlines flight last week, according to officials familiar with internal reviews under way at several federal agencies.
In a statement to The Wall Street Journal Wednesday evening, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said air-traffic controllers “should have notified [the military] more quickly that the plane was not responding.” Local controllers apparently became so focused on trying to re-establish contact that they failed to alert higher-level FAA managers about the problem in a timely manner.
Sorry, but I don’t buy that. If you’re on the phone and the line becomes silent, you don’t sit there saying “hello? hello? hello?” for 40 minutes; you hang up and, if necessary, attempt to re-establish communication by actively dialling the other person’s number. I don’t believe for one moment that “local controllers” (note the plural) would put their collective jobs on the line by deciding to not inform their superiors to an unresponsive plane for 40 minutes. It seems much more likely that the FAA simply didn’t notify the military in a timely manner.
This story has already gone well beyond bizarre with its escalating revelations. If it keeps going at this rate, we’ll probably find out on Monday that the FAA did actually notify the military on time, but the reason the air force planes were kept on “stand by” rather than taking to the skies is that it was a national holiday for air force pilots, and the janitor couldn’t work out how to start the plane.
In a way though, I am glad that all of this has happened. Nobody was hurt, and the many flaws in the current implementation of the procedure for dealing with unresponsive aircraft are coming to light. In theory, this should all lead to safer air travel.