Like many people (including my Atlantic colleague Jim Fallows), when I first heard about Northwest Airlines Flight 188 going radio silent for 75 minutes and overshooting its destination by 150 miles in October, I figured the pilots must have fallen asleep. As a pilot myself, I could think of no other conceivable reason for such a jaw-dropping lapse in pilot performance. And like Fallows, I, too, reacted with disbelief when the pilots said they had simply been too absorbed with company scheduling issues on their laptop computers. For over an hour?? With absolutely zero thought to where the heck are we??
In subsequent conversations with airline pilots I know, I discovered that to those who fly the line, it's not inconceivable. Just appalling. Suffice it to say that there are apparently a few other pilots out there whose sense of professionalism is noticeably and irritatingly lacking. And while pilots usually try to cut each other a little slack, especially from critiques outside the industry, I've only received one email from an airline pilot defending the actions of the Northwest crew. The rest ran along the lines of "they should be stripped of their ratings and pensions and never be allowed to fly an airplane again. Period."
The FAA agreed, revoking the pilots' certificates within days of the event. The reason all this is noteworthy again is that the pilots are currently in the process of appealing those revocations. And in statements to the FAA released Monday, they tried to shift the blame onto the air traffic controllers who failed to get in touch with them, saying that failures by the air traffic controllers that were "a causal or contributing factor in the incident."
I'm not sure which is more outrageous, actually. To get so engrossed in your personal priorities that you don't bother to ask, "gee, why is Center not calling us," or glance at any of the navigation screens that show you fast approaching your destination, or notice any of the eight separate text messages your own dispatchers have sent you, accompanied by warning lights ... in short, to not think for even one minute about actually flying the airplane ... or to try to blame it on controllers who didn't manage to yell at you loudly enough to get your distracted attention.
It is drilled into every pilot, from the earliest days of their flight training, that the pilot in command is just that: the person who holds final responsibility and accountability for the safe outcome of every flight. If you're flying in busy airspace, in clouds, or at altitudes where the airlines cruise, there are rules that say you have to be in contact with controllers and on a flight plan, at all times. If a controller says you need to do something, in most cases, you should do it. But the pilot retains final responsibility and say over the operation of the aircraft--as it should be. After all, as pilots are fond of saying, the furthest a controller can fall is the 18 inches from their chair to the floor.
If a pilot doesn't feel they can safely execute a controller's request, the simple response "unable" trumps the controller's direction. If worse comes to worst, a pilot can simply declare an emergency and do whatever is necessary to save the airplane and sort the details out on the ground. So blaming the controllers for not doing a better job at getting you to do your job is an even flimsier excuse than saying "the dog ate my homework" or "Johnny made me do it."
Controllers can make mistakes, of course, and from reading the transcripts of the air traffic control communications related to that flight, it seems as if there might have been room for improvement. Not in getting the attention of the Northwest pilots (one controller tried to contact the pilots more than a dozen times), but in realizing that a potentially serious situation, with potentially serious security concerns, was unfolding before them.
In the years since the attacks of 9/11, any number of small airplane pilots who strayed out of approved flight paths or airspace have found themselves eye to eye with pilots in military aircraft and helicopters, signaling stern orders to follow them to an airport and land NOW. This, mind you, for little training aircraft that weigh less than a Honda Civic and could probably do less damage. Yet an airliner with the fuel and mass to really do damage goes radio silent for over an hour, and cruises right past its destination, and nobody moved to intercept it--at least in part because controllers were slow to process what was going on and notify the appropriate agencies.
A mismanaged shift change in Denver may account for some of the delay. And in all fairness, the controllers after that assumed a benign explanation: that the flight had simply lost its radios and was unable to talk to anyone. So they treated it as such. And that kind of thing does happen. But the transcripts also show confusion among controllers about what was really going on and what to do about it. The same kind of confusion that the transcripts of controllers on 9/11 showed. Where are they? Are you talking to them? Can you get someone to try to reach them? Did someone call their company dispatchers?
Of course, the airliner had not departed from its flight path, or shown erratic behavior that would have raised more alarm. And enough little glitches happen in air traffic control communications that controllers are not trigger-loaded to ring alarm bells at the first sign of something amiss. But, still. The Commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command is not pleased.
It's been said that the attacks of 9/11 succeeded due to a lack of imagination on our part. We simply couldn't conceive of hijackers using box cutters to take over airplanes and fly them into buildings. And perhaps the controllers working with Flight 188 had, thankfully, gotten so used to safe skies again that they assumed a lack of contact from an airliner meant an inoperable radio rather than imagining something more serious.
So I hope controllers are getting a refresher course on the importance of better coordination, keeping alert for anomalies, and and questioning all the possible reasons a problem might be occurring. But for the Northwest crew to blame the controllers for not preventing their own transgressions is, as Jim Fallows said of the transgressions themselves, beyond the pale.
I'm guessing that the pilots are following the advice of their lawyers, who are trying to find any and all angles out of a thin list of possibilities that might get their clients off the hook. But ever since the first officer confidently told the press that the passengers were in no danger at any time, the crew has shown an appalling lack of awareness of just how egregious their sins were. What if the flight had been intercepted, as it perhaps should have been? Not to mention multiple other hazards that come with having a flight crew so detached from what's going on in the cockpit.
Perhaps it's asking too much to expect pilots who thought so little of their professional responsibilities in the first place to step up and take professional, mature responsibility for their failures. And the idea of minimizing their professional and legal exposure and cost is surely a tempting one. But redemption doesn't come as easily as a legal victory. And it surely doesn't come from blaming someone else for your own mistakes.
Unlike past presidents-elect, Donald Trump hasn’t expanded his support since the election. His belligerent attitude toward his critics may be one reason why.
Donald Trump always seems most grounded in chaos. He thrives on contradicting his aides, surprising his allies, disparaging his opponents. He revels in the tempest.
This combustible approach has touched a chord with his base of primarily non-college-educated and non-urban white voters who have felt eclipsed both economically and culturally and slighted by the nation’s leadership. But he will arrive at his inaugural Friday facing more resistance in public opinion than any newly elected president in the history of polling, and with lingering clouds over his legitimacy—symbolized by the surprisingly widespread House Democratic boycott of the ceremony. Trump’s agenda is polarizing enough, but the intensity of that opposition appears rooted even more in his relentless belligerence toward any critical voice or institution.
A history of the first African American White House—and of what came next
In the waning days of President Barack Obama’s administration, he and his wife, Michelle, hosted a farewell party, the full import of which no one could then grasp. It was late October, Friday the 21st, and the president had spent many of the previous weeks, as he would spend the two subsequent weeks, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. Things were looking up. Polls in the crucial states of Virginia and Pennsylvania showed Clinton with solid advantages. The formidable GOP strongholds of Georgia and Texas were said to be under threat. The moment seemed to buoy Obama. He had been light on his feet in these last few weeks, cracking jokes at the expense of Republican opponents and laughing off hecklers. At a rally in Orlando on October 28, he greeted a student who would be introducing him by dancing toward her and then noting that the song playing over the loudspeakers—the Gap Band’s “Outstanding”—was older than she was.
For one thing, she’s never attended or taught at a public school.
Betsy DeVos is likely to be confirmed as the next secretary of education. There’s nothing unusual about the Senate supporting a president-elect’s choice to lead the U.S. Department of Education. But DeVos is a more controversial choice than nominees in recent memory.
At his hearing, the outgoing education secretary, John King, faced friendly questioning from the senators on the education committee in charge of moving nominations forward, including from the Republican chairman, Lamar Alexander. King’s predecessor, Arne Duncan, was confirmed in the Senate by a voice vote. It’s not just Democrats who have had easy confirmations, either. Both of George W. Bush’s education secretaries—Rod Paige and Margaret Spellings—were also confirmed by voice vote and received praise during their hearings from Republicans and Democrats alike.
The president-elect’s filings with the Federal Election Commission offer the best (and only) glimpse into what he owns and owes. Here they are in for the first time in a searchable, easy-to-read format.
One hallmark of President-elect Donald Trump’s behavior is a marked tension between brazen exhibitionism and near-total opacity. Trump is incorrigibly outspoken, especially on Twitter, and has been in the public eye for decades; his supporters and surrogates frequently maintain that these make him notably transparent. However, when it comes to any information by which Trump could be held accountable, such as the details of his policy positions, he has been anything but forthcoming, a tendency which poses an enormous threat to a system of governance built upon the idea of checks and balances.
Among the most notable manifestations of this opacity is that, during the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump broke decades of tradition by refusing to release his tax returns. Although he initially said that he would do so, as the campaign wore on, he and his staff soon began proffering a number of explanations for why he didn’t. Though none of those excuses held up under scrutiny, Trump still hasn’t released his tax returns, which means that, though he is orders of magnitude wealthier than any of his predecessors, the American public knows significantly less about his finances than it has about any president’s since Richard Nixon. Given that Trump is entering the presidency with an unprecedented business empire—and unprecedented conflicts of interest—the dearth of information significantly restricts the public’s understanding of how Trump’s financial entanglements may influence his decision-making in office.
A mix of patriotic balladeers and apolitical acts will take the stage on Thursday and Friday.
It is not true, as a lot of commentary would have it, that Donald Trump’s inauguration will feature “no stars.” Some of the entertainers who have signed on to play have, in fact, built their success on entertaining millions of people. But it is true that what’s considered “the A-list” will be conspicuously absent, as will be acts from other lists: The B-Street Band, a Bruce Springsteen tribute group, backed out from an unofficial inaugural party after outcry; Broadway singer Jennifer Holliday reneged from the main concert event.
The mix of entertainers lined up for Thursday’s “Make America Great Again! Welcome Celebration” on the National Mall and Friday’s swearing-in ceremony represents a hodgepodge of ideology and expediency. In a savvy MTV essay about Trump’s national-anthem singer Jackie Evancho, Doreen St. Félix argued that booking the 16-year-old America’s Got Talent runner up was “a matter of scavenging, and then gilding over the spoils”—a description that could apply across the lineup given the many headlines about Trump’s team getting turned down by celebrities then saying that not having famous people is a good thing. But in its relative lack of glitz, and in its coalition of performers well familiar to state-fair stages, this week’s bill may inadvertently achieve the stated inaugural goal of projecting an image not of Trump but of the people who elected him.
The Russian leader tries to claim the role of senior partner in relationship with the U.S.
You have to feel bad for the Moldovan president. The newly elected Igor Dodon had traveled to Moscow to meet Russian president Vladimir Putin for the first Russian-Moldovan bilateral meeting in nine years. Yet here he was, standing side by side with Putin, his hero and model for emulation, at a regal-looking press conference and some reporter has to go and ask about the prostitutes.
“You haven’t yet commented on the report that, allegedly, we or in Russia have been collecting kompromat on Donald Trump, including during his visit to Moscow, as if he were having fun with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel,” said the reporter with the pro-Kremlin LifeNews. “Is that true? Have you seen these files, these videos, these tapes?”
The president-elect’s lawyers have explained why they don’t think he’ll violate the Constitution’s foreign emoluments clause—but their arguments fall apart under closer scrutiny.
Last week, President-elect Donald Trump’s lawyers issued a brief, largely unnoticed memo defending Trump’s plan to “separate” himself from his businesses. We believe that memo arbitrarily limits itself to a small portion of the conflicts it purports to address, and even there, presents claims that depart from precedent and common sense. Trump can convince a lot of people of a lot of things—but neither he nor his lawyers can explain away the ethics train wreck that will soon crash into the Oval Office.
It’sbeenwidelyacknowledgedthat, when Trump swears the Oath of Office, he will stand in violation of the Constitution’s foreign-emoluments clause. The emoluments clause forbids any “Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under [the United States]” from accepting any “any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State” (unless Congress explicitly consents).
Some Democrats, most notably Representative John Lewis, have labeled Donald Trump with the same epithet applied to his two immediate predecessors.
When was the last time America had a “legitimate” president?
You’d have to go back a ways to find a unanimous choice. Certainly not Donald Trump. Representative John Lewis, the civil-rights icon, has sparked a fury by saying, “I don't see this president-elect as a legitimate president.” Had Hillary Clinton won, she would not have fit the bill, either: Trump said repeatedly during the campaign that she should not have been allowed to run. Certainly not Barack Obama. Many opponents—none of them more prominent than Trump, yet again—argued, falsely and preposterously, that he was not even eligible to stand for the presidency because he had not been born in the United States. And certainly not George W. Bush, whom many Democrats viewed as illegitimate for several reasons: his popular-vote loss; questions over the final count in Florida; the fact that the Supreme Court effectively decided the election on a party-line vote.
Expanded school choice is a continuation of forced self-determination.
In recent weeks, pundits and scholars have bemoaned the privatization of public education that is likely to occur if Betsy DeVos is confirmed as Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education. Democracy Now!, for instance, billed DeVos as “Public (School) Enemy No. 1.” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, in a statement described her as “the most ideological, anti-public education nominee put forward since President Carter created a Cabinet-level Department of Education.” At her confirmation hearing Tuesday evening, Democratic senators grilled her about her track record promoting private control of public education and demanded, to little avail, that she would commit to keeping public-school dollars in public schools.
The agency’s “follow the water” strategy risks creating a lost generation of scientists.
Two weeks ago, NASA announced the selection of two new missions to explore the solar system. Psyche will fly to a metallic asteroid of the same name, and Lucy will explore “Trojan asteroids” that travel along Jupiter’s orbital path. The missions will advance our understanding of the origins of the solar system, and are by all accounts worthy missions. In choosing them, however, NASA passed on the chance to return to Venus, a planet in dire need of exploration.
A generation has now gone by since the agency set a course for the second planet from the Sun, and with this latest mission opportunity lost, the earliest an expedition there might launch (from some future selection process) would be 2027—nearly 40 years since our last visit.