The head of the Federal Aviation Administration had strong words Friday for two Northwest Airlines pilots, who overshot the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport last month, but he also turned the spotlight on his agency, saying that air traffic controllers failed to communicate during shift changes and notified the military too late that Flight 188 had dropped out of radio contact.
FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt told reporters in Washington that the FAA plans to retrain air traffic controllers to make sure they follow procedures already in place that would have raised the alarm sooner, which would have alerted the military. The procedures were put in place after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"We didn't do that. That's not acceptable for us," he said.
Also, valuable time was lost when air traffic controllers changed shifts and failed to notify their incoming colleagues that the plane was out of contact, said Hank Krakowski, head of the FAA's Air Traffic Organization. The FAA clarified later that one of those cases involved air traffic control supervisors in the Twin Cities.
"It was not reinforced to the incoming [controller] that the plane was out of contact. So it took awhile for the controller to figure it out," Krakowski said.
Krakowski and Babbitt said that planes drop out of radio contact for short periods several times a day, sometimes just because of switching frequencies. But Babbitt said that when a plane drops off for more than five or 10 minutes, that information needs to be circulated right away.
Babbitt also clarified that Flight 188 was out of contact for 77 minutes and that "everything known to man" was done to get in touch with the pilots. The FAA previously said that it was 91 minutes.
The FAA has revoked the licenses of Capt. Timothy Cheney, 53, of Gig Harbor, Wash., and First Officer Richard Cole, 54, of Salem, Ore., saying they acted "carelessly and recklessly." The pilots have appealed.
Suzanne Ziegler • 612-673-1707