Franken calls for review of airline policy after NWA plane incident

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Sen. Al Franken has had enough with the airlines messing up in Minnesota. In a letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Franken asked him to expedite his investigation into the Northwest Airlines flight that overshot the Minneapolis-St. Paul International airport by 150 miles and lost contact with air traffic control for more than an hour.

This incident comes after another back in August where passengers were stuck on the Rochester tarmac overnight and not allowed to wait in the terminal until their flight could take off again.

"Minnesotans deserve to understand what went so terribly wrong," said Franken in the release. "Yesterday's overshoot and the nine hour Rochester tarmac delay in August both highlight the critical need to revamp our national air traffic control system. This isn't the first time Minnesotans have been subject to gross negligence on the part of the airline industry - but it ought to be the last."

In the release, Franken says the "sterile cockpit rule" might have contributed to the problems experienced. While it might have made a difference in the Rochester incident, it shouldn't have been a factor in the Northwest Airlines flight. The regulations require only essential conversation and actions in the cockpit during critical phases of the flight.

From Franken's release:
In both the Minneapolis incident and the Rochester incident, the "sterile cockpit rule" may have contributed to the problem. Originally implemented to prevent pilots from engaging in idle chatter, the rule may now be preventing flight crews from communicating with the cockpit in urgent situations. In both instances, flight crews appeared more aware of the situation in the cabin than the pilots or airports.
The rule calls for a "sterile cockpit" when the flight is under 10,000 feet, but the plane was still at 30,000 feet until they turned around in Wisconsin. While the other crew members should have expected to be in a "sterile cockpit" mode as they got closer to what should have been landing time in Minneapolis, we're assuming the pilots never told the crew to "prepare for landing" until they turned around. We don't know if the crew has the ability to actually know the altitude of the plane, but this shouldn't have been a factor in this case.

Here are the sterile cockpit rules:
  1. No certificate holder shall require, nor may any flight crewmember perform, any duties during a critical phase of flight except those duties required for the safe operation of the aircraft. Duties such as company required calls made for such nonsafety related purposes as ordering galley supplies and confirming passenger connections, announcements made to passengers promoting the air carrier or pointing out sights of interest, and filling out company payroll and related records are not required for the safe operation of the aircraft.
  2. No flight crewmember may engage in, nor may any pilot in command permit, any activity during a critical phase of flight which could distract any flight crewmember from the performance of his or her duties or which could interfere in any way with the proper conduct of those duties. Activities such as eating meals, engaging in nonessential conversations within the cockpit and nonessential communications between the cabin and cockpit crews, and reading publications not related to the proper conduct of the flight are not required for the safe operation of the aircraft.
  3. For the purposes of this section, critical phases of flight includes all ground operations involving taxi, takeoff and landing, and all other flight operations conducted below 10,000 feet, except cruise flight.
Read Franken's letter to LaHood here (PDF).

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