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Airline Cockpits May Be 'Overbooked' as Pilots Invite Guests to Watch : Aviation: The practice violates FAA rules, but it is not uncommon. One flight attendant reported Boston Bruins hockey players crowding in to watch a landing.


The cabin lights were dimmed as the USAir jet made its descent toward Boston's Logan Airport. Flight attendant Janet Devlin sat down in her jump seat, looked up, and saw an astonishing sight.

Several members of the Boston Bruins hockey team, which had chartered the flight, were standing in the cockpit watching the landing, apparently at the captain's invitation. Devlin was "speechless," she recounted in a report she submitted to USAir about the May 11, 1991, flight.

Another flight attendant that day, B. J. Pinkerton, also reported that passengers were standing in the cockpit during landing. But she indicated that this was not unusual. "We have men in the cockpit, and I have questioned it but was told, 'It's up to the captain,' " she wrote in her report.

Several weeks ago, red-faced USAir officials fired two pilots for allowing an off-duty flight attendant to sit in the captain's chair and fiddle with the controls during the flight and landing. At the time, USAir chairman Seth Schofield said: "Our investigation assured me that this completely inexcusable action by three employees was an isolated incident."

But, as the flight involving the Boston Bruins shows, the problem is a larger one than either USAir or the airline industry is willing to admit. Echoing Pinkerton's report, one former USAir pilot said the airline had an "open-door policy" on cockpit access.

Pilot reports submitted to the government turned up other examples of unauthorized access to the cockpit granted by the nation's commercial pilots, including one case in which a captain stuck overbooked passengers in the cockpit and directed a flight attendant to squat behind the flight engineer during landing.

USAir denies that its cockpit-access policy is lax. But, in a little-publicized incident just one week after USAir fired the pilots, another USAir pilot sneaked his girlfriend into the cockpit on a passenger flight between Indianapolis and Phoenix. USAir says she was only in the cockpit for 10 minutes and he was showing her flight equipment. The pilot was suspended for three months without pay.

Federal regulations strictly bar any visitors to the cockpit during flight, unless the visits involve airline business, so that the pilots aren't distracted, especially during critical periods like takeoff and landing. The rules are the same for regular passenger flights and charters. An FAA official who reviewed the details of the Bruins flight at Newsday's request said it violated at least four major regulations.

Aviation officials say the incidents suggest a breakdown in broader pilot discipline.

"It concerns me," said Leo Janssens, president of the Aviation Safety Institute, an advocacy group in Worthington, Ohio. "This may be indicative of other safety problems in the system."

Much of the information on the problem is anecdotal. But sports charters may account for the lion's share of the abuses, especially if pilots are eager to meet their sports heroes.

"Depending on the crew, some pilots would be more inviting than others," said Laurel Prieb, who was traveling secretary for the Minnesota Twins baseball team in the mid-1980s. "There are some pilots who would say, 'If anyone wants to come up, pay us a visit.' " Prieb couldn't cite any specific carriers, but the Twins used every major carrier, including USAir.

Sports charters can also be rowdy, as United Airlines discovered in 1986 when the New York Mets caused $7,500 in damage by breaking seats and generally trashing a jet after they won the National League championship.

John W. Lewis Jr., the captain of the Bruins charter, said he doesn't recall men standing in the cockpit during the landing. But he said that USAir had "an open-door policy" on charter flights permitting visitors to the cockpit.

USAir adamantly denies Lewis' statement. "That is totally wrong, totally false," said David Shipley, a USAir spokesman. "USAir does not have an open-door policy. That is a violation of the federal air regulations. If we find it happening, we will take action on it."

Shipley said the airline recently warned flight crews that cockpit incidents will not be tolerated and could lead to dismissal. But, he added, the incidents are "not a symptom of a bigger problem at all."

Lewis left USAir shortly after the flight for personal reasons unrelated to the incident. He says he is still a pilot, but declined to say if he is flying for another airline.

Devlin, the flight attendant, confirmed that the incident occurred as she reported it, but declined to comment further. Pinkerton could not be reached. A spokeswoman for the Bruins declined to comment.

Several other examples of potentially dangerous visits to the cockpit were found in the Aviation Safety Reporting System maintained by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, where pilots anonymously confess wrongdoing:

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