Federal Aviation Administration officials said Friday they are strengthening procedures for alerting the military when air traffic controllers lose contact with planes.
The move comes as a result of the Northwest Airlines plane that overshot Minneapolis last month. FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt told reporters that air traffic control managers waited 69 minutes after the last contact with Northwest Flight 188 before alerting the Domestic Events Network of the problem.
The guidance to controllers since the 9/11 terrorist attacks has been to alert the military through the network after a plane has been out of contact for five to 10 minutes, he said.
In this instance, the Airbus A320 carrying 144 passengers en route from San Diego was out of contact for 69 minutes before the network was notified, Babbitt said. The network is essentially an open phone line between key agencies. The network notifies the North American Aerospace Defense Command of events that appear to be serious.
The delay in notification was "unacceptable," Babbitt said.
Radio contact with the plane was re-established after 77 minutes, he said. FAA had previously said the plane was out of contact for 91 minutes.
By the time contact was re-established, the plane had over flown Minneapolis by more than 100 miles and was 37,000 feet over Wisconsin. The two pilots have told investigators they were working on crew scheduling on their laptops and weren't aware of attempts to reach them until a flight attendant called on an intercom.
Babbitt also said he didn't learn of the Oct. 21 incident until about an hour after contact had been re-established.
"It would have been better to know sooner," he said.
An FAA internal review of the incident uncovered several procedural problems, officials said.
Individual controllers are responsible for aircraft in specific areas of airspace called sectors. As the plane flew across a broad swath of the middle of the continent, controllers at FAA centers in Denver and later Minneapolis didn't inform controllers managing neighboring sectors that the plane was not in radio communication, FAA officials said.
There were also several shift changes during the period the plane was out of contact. In several instances controllers going off duty didn't alert controllers coming on duty in the same sector that there was a plane not in communication, officials said.
As the plane flew from sector to sector, the timeline for how long the plane was without radio contact kept getting reset by controllers who were unaware of previous unsuccessful attempts to reach the aircraft, officials said.
FAA is reminding supervisors and managers that the events network needs to be contacted no later than 10 minutes after loss of contact with a plane, officials said.
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