Interview: Vance Harris, Northwest Airlines Principle Operations Inspector (POI)





Interview: Vance Harris, Northwest Airlines Principle Operations Inspector (POI)

Date: November 19, 2009

Location: NTSB (by conference call)

Time: 1400

Present were: David Tew, Malcolm Brenner, David Lawrence- National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB); T.R. Proven –FAA (by phone); Pete Sahler – Northwest Airlines (by phone); Dan Coogan – ALPA (by phone)  

During the interview, Mr. Harris stated the following information:  

He stated that his full name is Vance Martin Harris and his date of hire with the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) was June 1984. Prior to the FAA, he said he was an Army Reserve technician and flight instructor in fixed wing and rotor wing tactics at Willow Grove Naval Air Station just outside of Philadelphia, PA.  

He said he had been the temporary POI at Northwest Airlines for a year and a half following the death of the office manager and the previous POI assuming the position of office manager. He said he bid on the POI position and was selected as a temporary POI because of the impending merger with Delta Airlines. He had previously been an assistant POI For Northwest Airlines for nine and a half years, was a DC-9 Aircrew Program Manager for six years, and for two years was the Partial Program Manager on the DC-9 [the position was similar to an assistant APM and the title was utilized due to the size of the program].  

He also spent 1 year as an assistant POI as soon as he came onboard from the FSDO (Flight Standards District Office) and served there for three years before going over to the air carrier certificate office. He stated that he was not qualified on the A-320. He said that after the merger of Northwest and Delta, he would be the Assistant POI to the Delta POI in Atlanta, but would remain based in MSP because of the significant infrastructure that would remain in MSP.  

He stated that there had been a Joint Transition Team (JTT) formed for the merger. He said he was in charge of the day to day operations of the airline, and that David Gerken would be in charge of merger related events. The JTT handled the majority of the merger issues, but there was overlap between the JTT and operations. The JTT had been in effect for over a year. At the inception of the JTT, there were meetings with Delta Airlines, Northwest Airlines, his office, and they also contacted the USAirways FAA office to learn the best way of going about a merger to make it go more smoothly.  

One of the recommendations they had was to separate the oversight of the merger portion and the day to day operations. He said there was an “unbelievable” amount of information flowing across the groups. He said that at the very beginning, they had to figure out how to integrate the flight operations manuals, procedures and philosophy, and this process began back in January. He said that a comparable process was being developed at Delta Airlines and his office had developed a close coordination with Delta Flight Operations.


He said that they decided to take a “phase of flight" approach to this integration. He said that they put together an “A-team” [analysis] made up of Delta and Northwest pilots, instructors, and management pilots and ALPA. This team looked at impact changes from both carriers on training, and other divisions, looking at differences and similarities of the various phases of flight, and would adopt a “best practices” approach. He stated that Phase one kicked off in early February, 2009 when Northwest management personnel came to MSP to brief him of the Phase one changes.  

Phase one was focused on pushback, climb and cruise because it presented the fewest differences and allowed the pilots to “test the water” on the evolvement of the process and minimize the changes. This decision for the changes came about from Delta, Northwest, and management and was presented to the POI. After the changes were presented, there was an approval process, then it went to the printers, then to the pilots. Phase one implementation went into effect April 1, 2009. It was “their plan” and the FAA would review it. Since Delta was the acquiring airline, about 75% of the changes would impact the Northwest group, and 25 % would impact the Delta group, and “this was just the way things worked out.” 2 months later was Phase 2, and 2 months later would be phase 3, and currently they were in Phase 4 (which began October 1, 2009), and the final phase would begin January 1, 2010 when a single operating certificate began, if everything went according to plan.  

With reference to the Flight Operations Manual (FOM), Phase 4 was the largest of the phases, and included approximately 142 different items. Some of these items were minor, related to certain forms to fill out during events like bird strikes. He stated that he got verbal feedback from APMs and also reviewed comments from oversight activities through debriefs, pilot deviation information, and ASAP feedbacks. After a month and a half into each phase, Northwest would brief them on their view of the operational changes.  

He said that from April 1-Septmenber 30, 2009, there were 10 Element Performance Inspections (EPI) performed which dealt with 88 separate activities, asked 1356 questions , and 3.9% of the questions documented “minor items not done correctly (i.e. Pilot said something wrong on a checklist, got out of sequence on a flow, etc). The preceding six months, there were 1574 questions asked, and 1.7% negative response was received. The increase in negative responses was due to changes in the way the flight deck was being managed. He stated that he felt “very confident that the airline was running a safe operation”. This was the same type of information they got from the ASAP reports. He said to date this year they had 4,973 individual pilots reports concerning 3,188 events. To date, he said they got about 6-8 “comments” from ASAP reports per week (out of 120 ASAP reports) regarding issues with procedures or philosophy related to the changes.  

One of the common concerns was related to the amount of information coming to the pilots. He said that when his inspectors were out observing line operations, the pilots were doing a “solid job”. He said he does not have any specific concerns regarding the flight deck operations, but he was glad they were in the final operational phase, since phase 5 would not have any procedural changes to the flight crews.

He said that “change is difficult”, and Northwest Airlines philosophy was different than Delta Airlines. He said Northwest had a very structured process for what the F/O did and what the Captain did, and there had been some “frustration” on the Northwest side. He said there had been questions on why some things changed, but by and large the crews had been accepting of the changes. He said that he “hardly at all” got out on the line but he had “exceptional personnel” to assist him.  

Regarding the overflight, as he understood it, the captain and F/O were engaged in a review of the bidding process on the flight deck. He said he had not reviewed the ASAP report of the event because of the separation required by their Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). The bidding process that the pilots were working on took effect November 1, 2009 and was a new system that used a new software application for the pilots. He said information had been sent out to assist pilots on this (software and training people). , POI Harris said he understood the importance of pilots bidding their schedules. He said that the pilots picked a “bad venue” to review the bidding process, and that particular distraction caused the overflight.  

He stated that 10 days after the event he met with Lynn Melin, Managing Director of Procedures and Standards at Northwest and expressed his concerns. POI Harris said he wanted to see everything Northwest had done and would do to address the issue. He said that he would forward that information to the NTSB. He said that Delta and Northwest had provided the flight crews the best information in a segmented manner so as not to completely overwhelm them with the changes.  

He stated that, though he was “biased”, he believed he had excellent communications with Delta and Northwest, and that the reestablishment of ASAP and FOQA at Delta was “exceptional”, and he “has a good feel” about what is going on.

He acknowledged that “there is a lot of distraction on the flight deck because of change, because of bidding issues and what not” but believes the flight crews are doing a good job as is his staff.  

He stated that this event came as a complete surprise to him, and he asked whether this was a recurring problem at his flight operations meeting and nothing he heard indicated that this type of behavior was being exercised. He said that you would get a hint about whether this was an issue through the line check pilots, APDs, and APMs, but it had not come up. He said he knew that ALPA, and the company both discouraged behavior like the event. He said he would be surprised to see this type of behavior in the presence of a line check airman, FAA inspector, or even an ALPA representative in the cockpit. He stated that nobody in his office was aware that this is a reoccurring event. Regarding the event pilots themselves, he only knew that they were off line flying and were appealing the emergency revocation or their certificates. POI Harris said he had no additional information, and was not aware of these particular pilots having any previous problems at Northwest  

He stated that, at about 8:15pm on the night of the event while the aircraft was at about 10,000 feet on descent to MSP, he was notified about the event by Lynn Melin via a conference call with Mr. Melin and Glenn Fink, who was a Training Captain on the A320. He said he was not normally informed of NORDO events.

He said that he did not know the pilots personally.  

Regarding morale, he said that after talking with his APMs, he considered morale “solid”, but acknowledged “frustration” with the changes, but in his opinion the flight crews were feeling good about the merger. He said they may not like the procedures, but overall believed the merger was a good thing. He stated that morale was better than three years ago because the NWA bankruptcy was “tough” because the flight crews took a 30-40% pay cut and there were work rule changes.  

During the bankruptcy, he said the FAA paid particular attention to make sure the crews stayed “focused”, and was doing the same thing now with this merger. Additionally, he said the morale was much better now with this merger than it was during the previous merger between Northwest Airlines and Republic Airlines. He said the pilots overcame those merger problems, and they would overcome this. He said the distractions in the cockpit were due to procedural changes in the bidding process, and inherently those would be distractions.  

Regarding the use of personal equipment on the cockpit, he said there had been no changes to the use of PEDs since it was already prohibited by company policy.  

The interview concluded at 15:00

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