Were Southwest pilots distracted by 3rd cockpit passenger present in MO wrong-airport landing?

Authorities are checking whether the presence of a Southwest employee flying in the cockpit jumpseat was the distraction.
January 14, 2014 4:30:29 PM PST
The ABC7 I-Team has been looking into that Southwest jet from Chicago that landed at the wrong airport in Missouri. There are new details about what federal air safety investigators are focusing on.

We hear a lot about distracted driving, and now the National Transportation Safety Board team in charge of figuring out what happened in Branson, Missouri is looking at the possibility of "distracted flying." It's now known that three people were in the cockpit of that Southwest jet when it took off from Chicago Midway on Sunday, and now authorities are checking whether the presence of that third person-- a Southwest employee flying in the cockpit jumpseat-- was the distraction.

The Boeing 737-- fresh from Chicago-- reported its final approach to the Branson Airport then landed seven miles away at the much smaller county airport. Branson's runway is more than 7,000 feet long and is equipped with an overrun section in case the plane lands long.

The airstrip where the Southwest jet landed is about half as long, with a sharp drop at the end of the runway.

"I can't just start moving the airplane around or trying to reposition or anything like that," said the Southwest pilot.

If the still unidentified captain-- a 15-year veteran pilot-- didn't realize they were headed to the wrong airport, then his co-pilot should have according to aviation experts. That is the second in command's job: when not actually flying the plane, he or she is to monitor navigational systems.

A Southwest dispatcher was seated right behind the captain, flying on his airline pass. Dispatchers work ground jobs, such as planning flight routes and fuel loads.

Now, federal authorities want to know whether the co-pilot was distracted by that additional person in the cockpit. All three Southwest employees have been sidelined with pay until this can be resolved.

"The flying public and residents surrounding every commercial airport in the country deserve answers," said Missouri Senator Roy Blunt.

There are a couple of wrong-airport landings every year, and even more occasions we never hear about because the pilots realize their mistake soon enough and correct it. Many of the problems occur after the captain calls the runway in sight and moves from electronic flying to visual flying to hand controls. Why it happened on Southwest's Chicago to Branson flight Sunday night is the question.