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Isn't that Minneapolis down there?

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Rick Horowitz
October 29, 2009

Isn’t that Minneapolis down there?


SOMEWHERE OVER PENNSYLVANIA—“I just don’t buy it.”

The beverage cart is rolling up the aisle—coffee, tea and disbelief. The flight attendants on this evening’s flight are talking about what everybody’s been talking about: the suddenly famous (and suddenly former) Northwest Airlines pilots who made the big boo-boo.


Missing your runway by 100-plus miles will get you talked about, no question about it. Flying on past the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport when Minneapolis-St. Paul is, technically speaking, your “destination” is definitely a conversation starter.


Some of the conversation—no surprise here—is a bit waggish, like the longtime friend and lifelong Washingtonian who was impressed most of all by reports that the wayward craft had so completely missed its mark that it actually flew out of Minnesota airspace and into Wisconsin.


It was the first evidence he’d ever come across, he said, that Minnesota and Wisconsin were, in fact, separate places.


Ba-da-boom.


Meanwhile, back at 30,000 feet…


“I just don’t buy it.”


Our flight attendant has heard the ever-shifting explanations for what was going on—or not going on—in that Northwest cockpit: the “heated discussion” over airline policy, the in-flight tutorial, complete with laptops, on revised pilot-scheduling procedures, the…


So intent were our flyboys, so focused on the diversion at hand—or so they claim—that they “lost situational awareness.” Meanwhile, they also failed to respond to message after message sent by increasingly concerned air-traffic controllers. Nothing but silence from the cockpit for more than an hour. Because they were distracted.


As opposed to, say, asleep.


“I just don’t buy it.”


There’s a system, our flight attendant explains, for messages to the cockpit. It’s called ACARS, which stands for—something. (I’m too engrossed to interrupt her.) When a message arrives in the cockpit via ACARS, she says, it doesn’t just show up on the pilot’s screen; the arrival of each and every message is heralded by a sound. Actually, two sounds.

“Ding-Dong.”


Or more accurately, “DING!! DONG!!”


It’s such a loud “DING!! DONG!!” our flight attendant insists—and her fellow attendant, at the other end of the beverage cart, quickly confirms—that she can typically hear it when she’s standing in the galley, several feet and a reinforced cockpit door away from where the pilots are (supposedly) working.


She can hear it—and those Northwest pilots didn’t?


Sleeping through those warnings would have been difficult enough, it seems. But to have been conscious and alert, as the pilots apparently claim they were—even with a “heated discussion” going on, even in the midst of a thoroughly engrossing laptop-based scheduling tutorial—and not to have noticed even one of those incoming messages?


That explanation simply doesn’t fly—not to our flight attendants, anyway. Those guys were dozing. Both of them. At the same time.


Makes you want to go right back up in the air, doesn’t it?


The beverage cart continues on its way; I’ve got my coffee. It’s evening, but I’m drinking coffee.


Somebody has to stay awake.
Rick Horowitz is a syndicated columnist. You can write to him at rickhoro@execpc.com.

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