An inquiry has been launched into how a commercial airliner flew 150 miles past the airport it was meant to land at. The aircraft – an Airbus A320 operated by Northwest Airlines – was scheduled to touch down at Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport, which it ultimately did – but well behind schedule. In the meantime, the aircraft was airborne at 37,000 feet, not contactable and – in the minds of some – may have been taken over by terrorists.
This was definitely not the case, the aircrew onboard the Airbus stated. Rather, a “heated discussion” had distracted them. The inquiry, though, will look into whether the pilots had simply fallen asleep while flying the plane.
The US National Transportation Safety Board asserted: “The crew stated they were in a heated discussion over airline policy and lost situational awareness.”
In comments made to news agency AP, Keith Holloway, representing the board, referred to suggestions that the pilots might have been asleep as “speculative”, but added that “fatigue issues” would form part of the review into how this situation occurred.
Northwest Airlines Airbus
Contact between the Northwest Airlines Airbus and Air Traffic Control was lost around 60 minutes prior to the time of the aircraft’s intended landing at Minneapolis-Saint Paul. Later on, the US FAA (Federal Aviation Authority) made contact with the US military, and a pair of USAF fighter jets were prepared to be scrambled, if necessary.
Delta Air Lines (a partner of Northwest Airlines since 2008) has issued a statement in which it refers to the two pilots at the helm of the Airbus as having been “relieved from active flying”. Their future hinges on the outcomes of both an in-house investigation, and that now kick-started by the FAA, the airline added.
The Northwest Airlines Airbus A320 was flying as Flight 188, and a total of 147 passengers were on board.
Minneapolis-Saint Paul Airport
According to official data, Minneapolis-Saint Paul Airport was the US’ sixteenth most active during 2008, having handled over 450,000 individual aircraft movements, and having been used by more than 34m passengers.
The Airbus A320 and its variants (A318, A319 etc) are among the best-selling commercial airliner designs in history. First flown in 1988, the A320 equips airlines around the world, and was the first airliner to fully incorporate fly by wire technology.
October 27th Update:It emerged on October 27th 2009 that the pilots involved in the Northwest Airlines Airbus airport miss had been looking at their laptops at the time the overflight occurred. In so doing, ”they lost track of time”, according to the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board).
“The pilots said there was a concentrated period of discussion where they did not monitor the airplane or calls from [ATC], even though both stated they heard conversation on the radio”, the board added.
Both of the pilots in question remain on suspension as the investigation continues.