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Northwest Crew Buffoonery...a Sympathetic Perspective (Sort of)

I know I don't have a lot of Airpower stuff to pontificate on much these days, what with very little going on in the air combat arena around the world right now, but for what it's worth, allow me to clue you in to what often goes on in the front of an airliner during relatively long (3+ hours, say) trips.

While no longer a Hog pilot, I do still fly for a livink and am sitting in the hotel waiting for my next trip to start day after tomorrow.

I just got in from Taipei early this afternoon and will be going to Inchon and Hong Kong shortly. Both trips involve long legs...8 hours or better...and when I heard about the NWA debacle, a half-dozen scenarios popped into my head, especially since these guys are a) undergoing the Special Hell that is an airline merger, and; b) flying a long leg across most of the continent.

After you take off, the climb-out is fairly busy...with constant frequency changes and the associated check-ins that occur between the low-altitude structure and the higher-altitude cruise regime. However, once you climb through 18,000 feet and enter into what's called Class A airspace (where everybody is flying under IFR rules, e.g., under positive control of ATC for the purpose of separation from other aircraft), you can remove your headset and listen to ATC calls via the overhead speaker in the cockpit ceiling and answer with a hand mic (vice pushing a button while talking into your headset's boom mic). It's more comfortable...something critical to a long leg. Otherwise the "hotspots" you can develop on your cranium thanks to the headset that will really induce distractions to what you're doing.

The drawback is having to constantly adjust the speaker volume to strike a balance between missing a call and being blown out of the cockpit whenever ATC talks on your freq. They are always talking, not just to you, but to everyone else in their sector, of which your jet is just one of many players.

Now, if ATC ends up being chatty, you have a tendency to turn the speaker down to avoid the constant distraction. Sometimes you forget to readjust after the chatter subsides. Moreover, you're usually talking to your partner about something, from the weather at destination to who won the American League series. However, you'd be surprised how effectively YOUR callsign cuts through the background noise (that would be the engines, the air steam passing by the nose of the airplane, other chatter, etc.). Your ears seem to be especially sensitive to your own handle, e.g., "HotAir 1295, climb and maintain flight level three five zero...," and you hear that despite a turned-down speaker and the intense discussion about the total choking of the Angles' pitching staff in the bottom of the 8th night before last and new flight attendant's ta-tas.

But there's one thing that will suck you into a heartfelt discussion that MAY (rarely, but MAY) distract you completely: that special Hell I mentioned before...THE MERGER. Here's why...

The life of 99.99999% of the airline industry's pilot force is governed by what I call the Iron Law of Seniority. Nothing else affects your life more than what your employee number is in relation to everyone else. Everything you do in the company is driven by your seniority, period, dot. When you upgrade, how many good-paying trips you get, how often you're away from your family and, most importantly, how vulnerable you are to a furlough (hint: being junior is bad). The standing joke is the first thing a First Officer (co-pilot) does in the emergency procedures simulator when the "Captain" has a scenario-driven "heart attack"..is .ask what the SOB's seniority number is before doing anything else. Its apocryphal, and funny, but it illustrates a truism, in a way. So, back to the merger...

When two companies' pilot rosters are combined, you're dealing with a crowd in two heretofore separate camps who have patiently climbed up their own corporate seniority ladder over the years to a point where they finally have some control over their lives and a pretty good (not great, like the old days, but not bad) monthly paycheck. How do you reconcile the two groups' legitimate seniority claims? Answer: with great difficulty.

It is THE most emotional event, other than a fatal mishap, in several hundred, if not thousands, of peoples' lives.

Worst case, you can go from being a Captain that can hold a scheduled line (pre-planned series of trips over the course of a month to places you want to go) to a Reserve First Officer sitting on your kiester in a crash pad waiting for the phone to ring, not knowing for more than an hour where you're going or how long you'll be gone...major pay cut...major loss of control over you monthly schedule (and personal life)...no longer in a prestigious role (Captain is a serious title with serious responsibilities and serious efforts under the belt to get there, especially in my (big, international) airplane).

If these guys were looking at something that dealt with scheduling--the most important factor in your quality of life--as they allude to in the article, I can see the "Ooops" coming from a mile away. Since this was a long leg, they had both the time to get into the discussion and the opportunity to pull out the laptops and look at the new program (virtually everything is computerized these days, especially crew scheduling). "And, dammit, that friggin' radio is busy today!" [mumbled to oneself as the speaker volume is turned down a bit more]...

Were they wrapped around the seniority list merger process and company plan for same? Would you be if it could mean a cut in pay by perhaps a third, more vulnerability to being laid off, and losing that sweet NY-to-Montreal-to-Frankfurt-once-a-month line? Think it could make you miss not one, but several radio calls? Man, I could see that.

Does it excuse what they did? 'Course not. But people under the kinds of stresses these guys and gals are in today's economy in an industry that, on its BEST day, has a 1% profit margin are prone to make mistakes. I just thank God it wasn't a more serious error.

14 Comments

Gann wrote of the 'tyrrany of seniority'  as far back as 1961, in "Fate is the Hunter", when he flew with guys that had numbers in the double digits. Those poor NWA guys are assessing their new career options, I'm thinking...
 
My perspective as an infrequent flyer and fan of aviation is that these guys missed their turn, they turned around and safely landed... it's not as big a deal as the panicky media is making it out to be. 
Of course, more regulation is the answer here (rolleyes).

I'd rather see more focus and pressure put on the govt/airlines to deal with the customer service shortcomings of passengers being stranded/held hostage for unreasonable time frames on the tarmac.
 
Stuff hapens.  People screw up.  Procedures and rules are in place to deal with screw ups.  MORE rules, regulations, laws, oversigh grandstanding, etc are NOT the answer.  

Let the company/FAA investigate, then fire the guilty SOBs.

Then fire any Congrescritter who claims they have a solution, as they are obviously a lying worthless SOB.  But, they are Congresscritters, so that is redundent.
 
So I'm a civilian with hundreds and hundreds of take off and landings and some very good friends that are commercial pilots. Good enough to where I flew jump seat from Atlanta to Newark in a 727 (very illegal even then) They just didn't miss one check point, they missed many. If they really were discussing seniority and not flying the plane, they should at least loose theirs. When I screw up in my job it costs me money or the whole job.

Yes it's boring on the flight deck with all that automation and no flight attendant to play grab-ass with. But if you can't pay attention, it's time to find another type of job.
 
I was wondering if the scheduling was THAT important ...   Now, you answered that question, thanks!
 
Silly question from one of the ruttabagas that you haul in the rear of your aluminum tubes, Attila.  The Black Boxes, are they strictly to be opened and examined by the NTSB?  Or can they be used by management to review other security breaches?

If so, the "Real" truth would be self evident upon listening to the cockpit recorders.
 

I'm a bit surprised that the cabin crew weren't banging on the door wandering WTF was going on. 

 
The cockpit voice recorder, as opposed to the digital flight data recorder, is constantly recording what is said in the cockpit and is retrievable by the company, so I'm thinking they've already reviewed that but I doubt there will be a release of it without a major fight. These comprise the two "black boxes" and both are accessible to the company and the NTSB but neither will divulge the contents without going through major legal hoops.
As for banging on the door, that's what the intercom (the phone thingie the flight attendants use to give you the safety brief as you're taxiing out) is for. It generates a little "Ding!" in the cockpit that gets your attention. I think that's how they got the flight crews attention--it was 5 min to scheduled arrival and they were still cruising, which prompted the cabin crew to ask the pilots, WTFO--but I could be wrong. 
 
Understandable how it happened, but also understandable that they should lose their positions.
 
Boquisucio,

Unfortunately, (or fortunately, depending upon which side of the cockpit door your on) the CVR in this aircraft, apparently, records only the last 30 minutes of cockpit voise. Unless the Flight Crew were very chatty during that time period, its unlikely anything of significant will be discovered.

 
Oh boy!
Preview! Always!
'voice' and 'significance'
My bad.
 
"The two Northwest Airlines pilots who overshot their Minneapolis destination by 150 miles are grounded indefinitely unless the National Transportation Safety Board grants them a reprieve."

Per Foxnews. And they will most likely take a severe financial, possibly permanent, hit over this.

And, not for nothing, http://www.neptunuslex.com/2009/10/22/hard-to-grok/ roughed out a transition from cruise to the approach for landing phase. These guys were most likely off by lot more than 150 miles!



 
I'd like to know how the airport handled the non-communcation.
My first thought when I heard about this was.. "WTF?  How could that happen?"
My second thought was.. "Why didn't we send  fighters into the air to see WTF was going on!"
It seems to me that in this post-9/11 era that if a large plane goes without answering calls for well over an HOUR, SOMETHING should have been done to find the sucker!
 
 AFSister,
If I may, as I'm never in a position of Authority until the SHTF;
The airport was, most certainly, informed and updated on the status of the flight. But the airport, not being in direct communication with the aircraft until the very late stages of the flight, would be unable to do much of anything besides prepare for the eventual arrival.
Authorities, on the other hand.........were most likely very concerned about the lack of communications. I'm sure the pilot got a message from the airport tower, upon landing, to call a certain 800-###-####  ASAP to do some explaining.
The fighters? I believe they were ready or on the way.
And, apparentely, it was the crew in the back, not the flight crew in front, that first noticed the problem!