WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Pilots of a Northwest Airlines jetliner that overshot its destination by 150 miles last week told U.S. investigators they became distracted during an extended discussion of crew scheduling that included their use of personal laptops, officials said on Monday.
“The pilots said there was a concentrated period of discussion where they did not monitor the airplane or calls from (air traffic controllers) even though both stated they heard conversation on the radio,” the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said after interviewing the pair on Sunday.
“Both said they lost track of time,” the safety board said in a report on its investigation, which included disclosures about the nature of the conversation and the use of laptop computers.
The two veteran commercial pilots said they were not fatigued during the evening flight on October 21 from San Diego to Minneapolis, countering speculation they may have fallen asleep.
Air controllers and airline dispatchers sought to contact Flight 188, an Airbus A320 with 144 passengers, for more than an hour with the plane at 37,000 feet.
Neither pilot was aware of the plane’s wayward state until a flight attendant asked them about their scheduled arrival time, the NTSB said.
The captain looked at his flight display data, realized the mistake and then contacted controllers for permission to turn around. The plane landed without incident in Minneapolis.
Delta Air Lines, which owns Northwest, said in a statement the use of laptops or “engaging in activity unrelated to” flying the aircraft violates company policy.
The airline has suspended the pilots pending the outcome of government and internal investigations. They could be fired, Delta said.
The pilots said they were discussing new monthly crew schedules, which were put in place as a result of Northwest’s merger with Delta in 2008.
Investigators are also reviewing information from the plane’s flight data recorder.
Reporting by John Crawley; editing by Todd Eastham