Flight 188's overshoot and employee morale

Is there a connection between airline safety and morale? Flight 188's overshoot of the Minneapolis Airport last week begs the question. Northwest has been a troubled company for a long time.

Did poor employee morale play a part when a Northwest flight overshoot the Minneapolis Airport by 150 miles last week? It's a fair question.

Flight 188 overshot the airport by 150 miles because the two pilots were reportedly playing with their laptop PCs and, well, er, forgot to land.  If a poll were conducted now, close to 100 per cent would say these clowns should never be at the controls again.

[10/27 update: The Federal Aviation Administration has revoked the pilot licenses of the two pilots, citing several violations.]

Bad morale has plagued airlines for better part of the last decade with mergers, layoffs, high fuel prices, terrorism, slumps, fatigue and deregulation. For Northwest, the bad times started to roll in 1989 when it was taken over through a leveraged buyout and saddled with debt. After that, well-documented labor strife constantly roiled this once proud airline.


Northwest never made good on promises of jobs for a maintenance base in Duluth for which it recieved generous tax breaks. Pilots, flight attendants, reservationists and mechanics who've suffered through massive layoffs during the past decade have been smokin' mad for for a long, long time.

That these two pilots were distracted by studying new crew schedules as a result of the Northwest merger with Delta hardly an excuse for inattention that could have ended tragically. But do we want pilots to continually feel unsettled by job insecurity and anger for feeling like they got screwed on givebacks and concessions?

On a flight a couple of years ago, I sat next to a Northwest pilot and had a very animated conversation about the airline. He was cynical in the extreme and from the sounds of it, he was not wholly unjustified as I had followed Northwest's difficult post-1989 history. He also struck me as dedicated and professional.

I've flown on Northwest many times times in and out of Minneapolis because my wife's family is from there and she grew up in Eau Claire, Wis., the city 100 miles to the east where the pilots came to and turned around. Had I been in that plane, I would have known something wasn't right. I have a pretty good instinct for when it's time to descend.

Imagine if the GPS had been available on the in-flight entertainment system like it is on trans-oceanic flights. Passengers would have wondered if they had been hijacked after crossing into Wisconsin. This isn't funny anymore. That flight controllers were wondering who was in control of an unresponsive cockpit is  frightening.

[One wonders where the auto-pilot was in all this? Wouldn't it or his flight management system in the Airbus A320 warned the pilots that they had overshot Minneapolis? Wouldn't it have disengaged? The audio below is what an disengaging A320 auto-pilot sounds like.

Do we really have the full story about what went on in that cockpit? Were they paying attention to anything? Should video cameras be installed in the cockpit? We have them in police cars. Update: a pilot informed me by e-mail that neither the flight management system nor the auto-pilot act as a warning systems. They require manual input from the flight crew.]

One can argue that low morale is simply no excuse for what happened in the cockpit of Flight 188. Indeed, It isn't, but does discontent creep into the psyche and at some point compromise discipline? What impact does disenchantment have on training, focus and discipline? Does high morale have a positive impact on such things?

These are fair questions. Airline pilots aren't robots, after all.

There have been other unique incidents on Northwest. Remember flight 1047 in 1990 when  three drunk pilots flew a loaded DC-9 from Fargo to The Twin Cities? The flight engineer wrote a book about the incident and his subsequent redemption from alcoholism.  Much more tragically, there was Northwest Flight 225 in 1987 in which 154 perished because the pilots probably forgot to extend the flaps and slats on takeoff.

I sense something deeper is at work than just a case of random inattention. What do you think?

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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com