The pilots of the Northwest Airlines flight that flew far past the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport last week told investigators that they had been distracted from their duties by a discussion of a new computerized crew-scheduling system that the airline was introducing.
“Both said they lost track of time,” said an interim report released Monday afternoon by the National Transportation Safety Board.
Pilots put in “bids” for routes or work shifts by computer, and both men took out their personal computers in the cockpit, a violation of company policy, the safety board said. The first officer was more familiar with the new system and was explaining it to the captain, the report said.
Both were highly experienced pilots. Capt. Timothy B. Cheney, 53, of Gig Harbor, Wash., was hired in 1985 and had 20,000 hours of experience, about half of it in A-320s, the kind of plane the crew was flying last Wednesday, between San Diego and Minneapolis. First Officer Richard I. Cole, 54, of Salem, Ore., was hired in 1997 and had about 11,000 hours of experience.
“Neither pilot was aware of the airplane’s position until a flight attendant called about five minutes before they were scheduled to land and asked what was their estimated time of arrival,” the interim report said. By that time, they were still at 37,000 feet and more than 100 miles beyond their destination.
There is no procedure for flight attendants to check on pilots during flight. Before the airplane hijackings on Sept. 11, 2001, flight attendants casually entered the cockpit as a plane was cruising, but since the terrorist attacks, cockpit doors have been reinforced and are locked during flights.
In separate interviews totaling more than five hours, Mr. Cheney and Mr. Cole told investigators they had not been napping or arguing during the flight. The cockpit voice recorder captured only the last 30 minutes of conversation, some of it on the ground after landing, but investigators said they would try to use the flight data recorder, which captured the entire flight, including use of radios, to determine the type of crew activity.