DALLAS – A third person in the cockpit of a Southwest Airlines plane that landed at the wrong Missouri airport was a company dispatcher who had authority to be there, airline officials said Tuesday.
The airline and federal officials say they’re continuing to investigate why the Southwest Boeing 737 with 124 passengers headed for the main airport in Branson, Mo., instead landed several miles away at a smaller airport with a runway roughly half as long. It’s not uncommon for airline employees to sit in the jumpseat with the pilots’ permission, but investigators are likely to consider whether the dispatcher’s presence distracted the pilots.
The two pilots, men with at least 12 years each at Southwest, were placed on paid leave after Sunday’s flight. The airline said Tuesday that the dispatcher also has been placed on paid leave. Southwest declined to provide more information about the dispatcher’s background and purpose for being in the cockpit. Spokeswoman Linda Rutherford said that the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the incident, asked the airline not to disclose that and other information yet.
Dispatchers work with pilots to plan flight routes and fuel loads after considering weather and other factors. Southwest officials said the dispatcher was sitting behind the captain and first officer.
Investigators plan to interview both pilots and the dispatcher, safety board spokesman Keith Holloway said.
NTSB investigators seized the plane’s cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder — the so-called black box. Holloway said that information from the recorders was being analyzed Tuesday afternoon, but it could be a few days before the board releases preliminary findings.
Aviation experts wondered why neither pilot realized that they were approaching the wrong airport.
“I think that they weren’t communicating in the cockpit the way they should — back and forth,” said Robert Francis, a former NTSB vice chairman. “Everybody has a responsibility to pay attention to the instruments.”
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a member of a Senate aviation subcommittee, wrote Tuesday to Federal Aviation Administration head Michael Huerta and demanded a thorough investigation, saying “the flying public and residents surrounding every commercial airport in the country deserve answers.”
No one was injured in the landing at a small airport built for light jets and private planes, but passengers smelled burning rubber as the pilots braked hard to stop near the end of the runway, which gives way to a steep drop-off. The manager of the Taney County Airport, which opened in 1970 and doesn’t have a control tower, said no 737 had ever landed there.
Salter reported from St. Louis. AP transportation writer Joan Lowy and AP Television producer Padmananda Rama in Washington contributed to this report.