Commercial aviation isn't what it once was. The heady sense of anticipation that passengers used to experience when they arrived at the airport has been replaced by long lines, unavoidable aggravation, and a level of customer service that approximates a day at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
On the other hand, commercial aviation has an enviable safety record. A record so good, in fact that a safe arrival at your destination is virtually assured when you fly from anywhere in the U.S. to any other point on the globe. Hopefully, that is a somewhat comforting fact that just might dull the jangling nerves of those often disgruntled passengers who tend to be white knuckle fliers.
Safety is the primary concern in aviation. The quest to remain so astoundingly safe is what drives crew training and work rules, all designed to maintain that high level of crash-free service provided by the airlines. Safety is everything. And that is exactly why it comes as no surprise that the Federal Aviation Administration responded quickly and forcefully in the case of a Northwest Airlines flight that flew past its destination by approximately 150 miles, last Wednesday. The FAA revoked the certificates of both pilots, leaving them unable to fly any aircraft of any type. They are effectively unemployable as pilots.
While the price may appear high for what many could argue was a temporary lapse in judgement, it is an entirely appropriate course of action for the FAA to take. Because while we do not know exactly what the two-man flight crew of that Airbus 320 was doing during the time they were out of touch with air-traffic control, and their own company messaging system – we know exactly what they weren't doing. They weren't flying the airplane. A point that was not lost on the FAA.
A pilot's primary responsibility is the safety of the passengers and crew. Based on the facts, it is clear that these pilots were not engaged in their primary duties, even though 144 passengers were patiently sitting behind them, waiting to be delivered in one piece to their destination. And the facts are these - this particular flight was unresponsive for over an hour, the aircraft did not descend as it was cleared to do, and it flew at cruise altitude past its destination by 150 miles.
In layman's terms, this means the pilots were not navigating the airplane. They were not maintaining what pilots call, “situational awareness,” a term that implies not just knowing where you are on the map, but also the condition of your aircraft and the circumstances surrounding it. They were apparently not concerned with collision avoidance either – the task of looking out the window to be sure you're not about to slam into another aircraft, or a mountain, or a lake.
Yes, I said a lake. Because when in flight, especially at night (as this flight was) it is impossible to judge altitude or attitude (whether the aircraft is right-side-up or up-side-down) based on the standard issue balance sensors humans normally rely on.
Consider Eastern Airlines Flight 401 as a prime example of why the focus and attention of the crew is so critical to safety.
Shortly after Christmas, 1972, a well trained and experienced crew flying a Lockheed L-1011 from New York to Miami experienced a problem. At least they thought they were experiencing a problem – they did not have a good indication that the nose wheel was down and locked for landing. Through a series of assumptions, small errors, and bad decisions, the entire crew became so engrossed in fixing the perceived problem that they did not notice their aircraft was descending. Air-traffic control noticed the airplane was losing altitude, and they asked the crew if they were alright. But the controllers unfortunately never mentioned the loss of altitude in their transmissions.
The Eastern Airlines flight continued to lose altitude while the crew worked a non-existent problem right up until it impacted the Everglades, killing 98 passengers and crew members.
With that all too real indication of what the result of an inattentive crew can lead to, the FAA took appropriate measures this week in dealing with the Northwest crew. It is certainly true that these two men are experienced, well trained, and decent people. But at a time when it was particularly important, they did not live up to the primary responsibility they had as pilots. The result is that they must pay the price for their unfortunate lapse in judgement.
It's a sad day all around. However, it is a day when the FAA has made it abundantly clear that safety is the top priority for everyone involved in air transport.
I have a strong suspicion that there will be very few pilots who will suggest pulling out the ol' laptop to go over crew scheduling policies while their aircraft is in flight, in the future. It's a good day to fly. Your crew is ready and able to get the job done. As they should be.