By John Dodge
Posting in Cities
Is there a connection between airline safety and morale? Flight 188's overshoot of the Minneapolis Airport last week begs the question. Northwest has been a troubled company for a long time.
Did poor employee morale play a part when a Northwest flight overshoot the Minneapolis Airport by 150 miles last week? It's a fair question.
Flight 188 overshot the airport by 150 miles because the two pilots were reportedly playing with their laptop PCs and, well, er, forgot to land. If a poll were conducted now, close to 100 per cent would say these clowns should never be at the controls again.
[10/27 update: The Federal Aviation Administration has revoked the pilot licenses of the two pilots, citing several violations.]
Bad morale has plagued airlines for better part of the last decade with mergers, layoffs, high fuel prices, terrorism, slumps, fatigue and deregulation. For Northwest, the bad times started to roll in 1989 when it was taken over through a leveraged buyout and saddled with debt. After that, well-documented labor strife constantly roiled this once proud airline.
Northwest never made good on promises of jobs for a maintenance base in Duluth for which it recieved generous tax breaks. Pilots, flight attendants, reservationists and mechanics who've suffered through massive layoffs during the past decade have been smokin' mad for for a long, long time.
That these two pilots were distracted by studying new crew schedules as a result of the Northwest merger with Delta hardly an excuse for inattention that could have ended tragically. But do we want pilots to continually feel unsettled by job insecurity and anger for feeling like they got screwed on givebacks and concessions?
On a flight a couple of years ago, I sat next to a Northwest pilot and had a very animated conversation about the airline. He was cynical in the extreme and from the sounds of it, he was not wholly unjustified as I had followed Northwest's difficult post-1989 history. He also struck me as dedicated and professional.
I've flown on Northwest many times times in and out of Minneapolis because my wife's family is from there and she grew up in Eau Claire, Wis., the city 100 miles to the east where the pilots came to and turned around. Had I been in that plane, I would have known something wasn't right. I have a pretty good instinct for when it's time to descend.
Imagine if the GPS had been available on the in-flight entertainment system like it is on trans-oceanic flights. Passengers would have wondered if they had been hijacked after crossing into Wisconsin. This isn't funny anymore. That flight controllers were wondering who was in control of an unresponsive cockpit is frightening.
[One wonders where the auto-pilot was in all this? Wouldn't it or his flight management system in the Airbus A320 warned the pilots that they had overshot Minneapolis? Wouldn't it have disengaged? The audio below is what an disengaging A320 auto-pilot sounds like.
Do we really have the full story about what went on in that cockpit? Were they paying attention to anything? Should video cameras be installed in the cockpit? We have them in police cars. Update: a pilot informed me by e-mail that neither the flight management system nor the auto-pilot act as a warning systems. They require manual input from the flight crew.]
One can argue that low morale is simply no excuse for what happened in the cockpit of Flight 188. Indeed, It isn't, but does discontent creep into the psyche and at some point compromise discipline? What impact does disenchantment have on training, focus and discipline? Does high morale have a positive impact on such things?
These are fair questions. Airline pilots aren't robots, after all.
There have been other unique incidents on Northwest. Remember flight 1047 in 1990 when three drunk pilots flew a loaded DC-9 from Fargo to The Twin Cities? The flight engineer wrote a book about the incident and his subsequent redemption from alcoholism. Much more tragically, there was Northwest Flight 225 in 1987 in which 154 perished because the pilots probably forgot to extend the flaps and slats on takeoff.
I sense something deeper is at work than just a case of random inattention. What do you think?
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Oct 26, 2009
Ted Zeck, Her name is Ann Dooley and she went to Memorial HS. She does not know your name, but she had a roommate named Dorothea Zeck at Madison (`74). We've been there many times (flew in as a matter of fact), but she headed east right after college and never looked back.
I'm sorry, but this "morale" excuse is simply unacceptable. These people are supposed to be professionals, and the difference between a "professional" and the rest of us is that a "professional" does their job properly, regardless of how little fun it is at the moment. That's why I'm still sticking with the "fell asleep" theory. It's not "professional" either, but it doesn't require such a lame excuse as "we were busy with the damn schedule on the laptop that we wouldn't have to have had to deal with if this was the good-ole-days of 1979" does.
If half of what was written here is true about NW, this sure looks like not only the pilots should get the boot-in-the-arse (for they are ultimately responsible for the plane) but also the entire board of directors (sans bonuses & benefits).
What's unusual about this incident is the airlines willingness to appoint scapegoats for a non-accident. I once spoke to a pilot who had been an anonymous passenger on a flight out of Alaska. As the plane started building speed for take-off, he was very aware of shuddering throughout the plane, and they were not gaining speed fast enough. It was obvious to him that the wheel brakes were still on. The jets were driving it, but not to take-off speed. The plane ran off the end of the runway into a muddy field and snapped it's nose gear. No serious injuries, but the passengers had to be evacuated, of course. After all the investigation and hearings, the official cause of the accident was the soft mud beyond the end of the runway.
After shooting down a climbing Airbus saying they "mistook" it for a diving MIG fighter the fact that the National Security State can shoot down U.S. airliners over U.S. territory is what should scare people. Talk about crazy and irresponsible, instead of court marshals they all got medals and we've yet to even apologize for it. A good example of the mindlessness of the U.S. 'consumer' and the so called 'leaders' that ultimately decide again the fates of people, machines and technologies they have no understanding of at all. So yea, shoot the plane down, that'll give the idiots in charge of the idiots something to crow about. That'd be 'condition orange', right? I mean shooting down airliners that don't answer the phone. But as long as you have enough duct tape you'll forget about this one soon enough. Hell, these guys should be grateful that corporations let them pilot big expensive planes that cost tens of millions of dollars and flown by people working at close to minimum wage. So long as they can get 5 days in Cancun for $350, have never even been in an airliner cockpit and understand nothing (oh yes, let's not forget that you don't just kill the throttles right on top of your destination airport and dive straight down) about planes, flight characteristics or well dressed and underpaid bus drivers of the sky. Do any of the people 'commenting' (aside from the retired pilot) have any idea at all what's involved with flying? Even a tiny clue? Most probably not, which since this is such a 'free' country, you need no ability at anything to pass judgement about things you know nothing about. No, I'm no airliner pilot but do have a license to fly sophisticated aircraft and most people here have no idea what they're talking about. But opinions are like a$$holes, everyone's got one. Even me.
I believe morale is one of the primary reasons this incident happened. I have yet to work anywhere that had good morale. The endless complaining and whining by some who inhabit the workforce, is detrimental to everyone. I know, it's just a few bad eggs. Even the best place I ever worked, was besieged by so many rules,requirements, and regulation of all sorts, that good people just turned slightly sour a month into their short tenure. We never will hear the true story, but it's all academic now. At the least, nobody was injured.
The pilots were negligent in not knowing where they were and what time they should have arrived. Though babysitting the autopilot is a dull job, they had to be engrossed in something to have ignored the alerts and overflown their target by so far. They will probably lose their flying privileges for some time. However, the passengers were not in danger. That must also be taken into consideration. They were not incompetent, or they never would have gotten as far as getting their ATP licenses. They are human,they made a mistake, and I'm sure they will receive an appropriate punishment from either the airline, FAA, NTSB, or any combination. Letting the passengers pelt them with peanuts would be good, too. "Sorry, fellas. You screwed up. Take your medicine."
Folks: Really, the person who commented that they overshot by only 15 minutes is not considering that they just don't go to the runway and suddenly dive from cruise altitude - it is a somewhat long process that usually occurs about 30 minutes before landing. So, what where they up to for 45 minutes? Also, aircraft voice recorders record the last 30 minutes of flight - so they probably had a good idea what was happening. Sorry folks - I understand people getting angry when management keeps treating people like expendable commodities. BUT, these pilots had their own lives as well as their pasengers in the balance - if they have a death wish, then they shouldn't be flying. They are lucky they didn't get shot down - the military has the authority WITHOUT presidential approval.
I think it's just possible they were arguing about or possibly trading food stamps and the issue of eating three times a day trumped just a short delay in landing the thing. Almost all accidents take place in the five minutes a plane is either landing or taking off. So there's statistically little worry at cruise altitude. And as long as flight following had them in their scopes they weren't going to hit another plane at that altitude, so why all the hub bub just cause they overshot a bit? Let's see, 150 miles is around 15 or so minutes at cruise speed so it's not like they didn't figure out the problem till they passed L.A. or something. Why is this still even in the news? If pilots are the sanctified experts we compare to doctors and other professionals why get on an airliner where the Captain probably qualifies for food stamps? As long as they have the proper costumes and they knock a buck or two off the ticket price, that's alright with you. But overshoot (slightly) a runway and the nation goes nuts. The real tell is that the nation is already nuts, just don't confront the maniacs with the results of downgrading, downsizing and busting unions as something people have no trouble with. So long as they don't have to see the results of their own greed. Have you ever missed a FREEway exit? Sure you have and that's all these guys did. Freeways are not free, nor are air lanes. I haven't read one thing about the plane or passengers ever being in imminent danger, so why does this incident have such long legs? Because people expect perfection so long as they don't have to pay for it and don't understand what the world looks like from the pilots seat at 30 some thousand feet.
As a retired (12 years ago) Delta pilot I may have some insight here. Flying past normal radio communication range is not uncommon. All it takes is a few missed radio calls with instructions to change to the next freauency. Missing calls or messages from the dispatcher is different as there is an audible sound to announce the message arrival. I cannot comment on the Airbus autopilot and flight management system as my experience is almost entirely with Boeing airplanes. The other item mentioned in the responses, landing on the wrong runway at KATL, also happens occasionally. I did fly 767's. If you receive a last second runway change, not uncommon in Atlanta, visually landing can lead to such mistakes. Time permitting, the FMS can be reprogrammed to the new runway but the pilots do not want to spend any head down time that close to landing. (If the change was offered as an option instead of a directive they could have refused it.) Yes, the lights are a different color - blue for taxiways and white for runways. 6 something AM and landing west eliminates the sun in your face as a factor. Just how light it was would determine if the lights were even on at the time.
Simply put, there's no excuse for negligence behind the controls of a commercial airline, short of having a terrorist gun to your head. I don't care if these guys were reading, playing cards, playing with PCs, or playing with one of the stewardesses. The lives of a lot of people are in their hands and they're responsible. If they don't want that responsibility, they should take a different job. And these guys have been waffling, to boot, about what they were up to. They should be fired. No excuses.
I do think this is a problem. They were obviously consumed in the anger and what is going on with their industry. Flight schedules and work routes are a big deal to both pilots and the flght crew. NOT an excuse but perhaps incite as to what is going on in this industry and how it might affect your safety. I think when you are angry you tend to loose time more than if you are just normal emotionally.
Yeah, at 6:05 am, not sure if the lights would have had much of an affect at that time, it was probably daylight at the time, or late dawn, an even harder time to see.
I DO know better with an Eau Claire Memorial High School education. Let's see...any misspeeels in this one? That's a joke, pilgrim.
I'm no ATP in a big jet like that, but you'd be surprised how similar a parallel runway can look from a distance, even in daylight. The tire marks can obscure the runway, making the taxiway brighter. And at night, you can imagine what all the lights at an airport like KATL look like. And once you're set up in a 767, well, I bet it's not easy to make a sudden switch on short final. I'd be interested to hear the Tower/cockpit recordings.
I, too, grew up in Eau Claire, Wisconsin! To bad it took me 53 years to shake off the snow and move to Texas. Maybe I'll go back someday...in a casket.
Some years ago, one plane came close to landing on the A4 road parallel to the runway at London Heathrow before the pilot aborted at the very last minute. Surely taxiways should have different coloured lights to runways.
...many are trying to shift the topic of conversation away from an factual issue of "competence" to a political issue of "morale". Of course, in the political realm, nobody is responsible for anything because of externalities like "morale". As for the taxiway landing: They were cleared to land on runway 27R, and instead landed on taxiway "M", just to the left. A quick glance at Google Earth reveals that the runway should not easily be confused with the taxiway. (it's half as wide, and lacks runway markings) My guess is that it was a case of extreme exhaustion on part of the pilots.
Yeah, I've always let my "morale" decide how safely the things I do affect other humans. To hell with them, I say, 'cause I'm upset with union/management/scheduling, etc. Gosh, I hope that this healthcare debacle doesn't affect nurse and doctor morale....
I have the feeling that if there had been secret video cameras in that cockpit, none of us would like what we'd see. Additional thought - this kind of error has been made more likely by post 9/11 cockpit security. In the past, pilots had to be prepared that a flight attendant could enter at any time. Now they have guaranteed privacy.
Let's face it. A screw-up this profound with over 140 lives at stake is grounds for termination. If these guys keep their jobs, I sure as hell don't want to fly Delta again. They were both obviously asleep at the wheel.
Considering many taxiways are just as long, and sometimes include overruns. Add to the fact that many times a flight has to swing around and approach from the opposite end of the field and you can easily swap left and right orientation. As long as the taxiway is clear of traffic, you're okay. But taxiways aren't supposed to be clear like the runway. Visions of t-boning a fuel truck make my hair stand on end.
Are you kidding? So if I'm checking stock prices on my Blackberry while I'm driving home, and then wreck, we can blame it on the poor economy? This nation does not need anymore support of the victim mentality. Poor employees led to the overshoot. It's pretty simple. We've already seen deaths on public ground transportation resulting from operator malfeasance (texting while conducting trains, etc.). It was only a matter of time the idiocy reached the cockpit.
...especially considering that the story has evolved from the first one the pilots told. What I find amusing is the idea that missing countless radio calls, text messages, and ultimately their destination because they were too distracted by their "discussion" is any less incompetent that simply falling asleep. Either way, their careers are toast. The state of their morale isn't the point. This was just sheer incompetence. Meanwhile here at ATL, we had a DL 767 land on a taxiway. Stay tuned for the excuse on that one.