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LAPTOP USE COULD COST PILOTS JOBS

Any employee at a company that has gone through a merger knows how distracting it can be when the new owner imposes new rules. That distraction, not a nap, was what two Northwest Airlines pilots insist caused them to fly far beyond the Minneapolis airport last week, federal investigators reported Monday.

The pilots told the National Transportation Safety Board that they missed their destination because they had taken out their personal laptops in the cockpit, a violation of airline, though not FAA, policy, so the first officer, Richard I. Cole, could tutor the captain, Timothy B. Cheney, in a new scheduling system put in place by Delta Air Lines, which acquired Northwest last fall.

"Both said they lost track of time," the report stated. It also said that the pilots had heard voices over their cockpit radios but ignored them.

Delta, in a statement Monday, hinted strongly that the lapse could cost both men their jobs. "Using laptops or engaging in activity unrelated to the pilots' command of the aircraft during flight is strictly against the airline's flight deck policies, and violations of that policy will result in termination." The pilots remain suspended until completion of the airline's investigation.

Cole and Cheney ignored air-traffic controllers for about 90 minutes Wednesday night and did not begin preparations for landing in Minneapolis. Instead, the Airbus A320, with 144 passengers and three flight attendants en route from San Diego, flew about 110 miles to Eau Claire, where it made a loop at 37,000 feet over Wisconsin and returned to Minneapolis, landing safely.

Pilots' schedules are tied to their seniority. Those at the top of the list get first choice on vacations, the best routes and the bigger planes that they get paid more for flying. After Delta's acquisition of Northwest, an arbitration panel ruled that the pilot seniority lists at the two carriers should be integrated based on pilots' status and aircraft category.

Cheney and Cole are both experienced pilots, according to the NTSB. Cheney, 53, was hired by Northwest in 1985 and has some 20,000 hours of flying time, about half in the A320. Cole, 54, has about 11,000 hours of flight time, including 5,000 hours in the A320.

Information from the New York Times and Associated Press was used in this report.

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