AIN Survey Confirms Airborne Distractions Issue

 - April 4, 2014, 2:30 AM

The FAA’s recent rule prohibiting the personal use of electronic devices in the cockpit applies only to Part 121 carriers, although the NTSB would like to see the rule extended to cover Part 135 and Part 91K operators. AIN recently surveyed readers for their insights about the distractions that challenge them–and the answers were surprising. We received 112 responses to our four questions. While the informal survey yielded a relatively small number of responses, the answers pilots gave about their experiences with distractions are illuminating.

Nearly 70 percent of respondents told us cockpit and or cabin distractions are definitely an issue. Half of the operators told us their flight departments already have some kind of written company policy to deal with distractions. Surprisingly, only 39 percent of the same group identified electronics as the problem. The other 61 percent said people, not tablets or phones, are their biggest concerns.

The human element of the flight poses significant distractions, according to survey respondents. In some cases the distraction can come from the crew itself. Quite a few respondents said there would be no distraction issue if crews simply abided by their own existing standard operating procedures (SOPs) for a sterile cockpit below 10,000 feet. One pilot explained one drawback to SOPs: “100-percent compliance with SOP callouts often comes at critical times when the flight crew needs to be talking to ATC, or is switching frequencies and looking for the runway. I also believe that poor training and inadequate FMS manuals often lead to confusion.”

Another said, “Sterile cockpit rule violations and Wi-Fi availability cause the greatest distractions. We shouldn’t be texting while driving and certainly not while flying. But it still happens.”

One chief pilot said, “Although a policy may be in place, the crew is often forced to cut corners to get everything done in the time allotted. I see senior management give lip service to things like safety, maintenance procedures and crew rest. We only hear about the need to do more with less.”

However, distractions also come from beyond the cockpit. One pilot noted, “We’re usually distracted by a passenger poking one of us on the shoulder with a question like ‘Why are we flying past the airport?’, which always seems to come just as we’re finalizing the approach checklist…and all while the seatbelt sign is on.”

Another explained that people on the ramp are a huge distraction, “especially when we’re receiving a clearance or are trying to input FMS data that requires the highest level of teamwork.”

Distractions from Electronics

Looking at the aggregate survey responses highlighted surprising elements of electronics distractions. “People playing around with iPhones, laptops and video games,” for instance. Another commented, “As Wi-Fi started to spread to business airplanes, I found crewmembers more likely to engage in its use for nonoperational matters.” One pilot added, “I thought it was annoying when another pilot brought a book or newspaper into the cockpit. Now with iPhones, iPads and the Internet there is a never-ending stream of distractions…company and personal e-mails, expense reports and even games of Angry Birds.”

The most significant of the electronic distractions the survey revealed, however, related to aircraft systems themselves. One pilot who flies a jet in a single-pilot operation recalled a recent trip to southern Utah in which the airplane was later found to have inaccuracies in the database. “On short final terrain warnings started going off and persisted in combination with the 1,000-foot and approaching minimums alerts. It turned out the terrain function was using the old airport elevation while the other functions used the new one. This can be quieted, but it is not something to be bothering with on short final. I just worked with all the noise. But the passengers can see all the flashing lights and sometimes hear the warnings. On the return flight I inhibited terrain before final.”

Another pilot said, “Our largest distraction is the avionics system of our complex aircraft. Though we are well educated and are professional crews, we still [often] don’t understand system presentations seen daily. The infamous, ‘What is it doing now?’ When something occurs that we don’t immediately understand, the crew is forced to decide between entering into a possibly distracting study of the unfamiliar presentation or to ignore it and get on with the mission, only to be bothered by a similar presentation later. The aircraft flight manual (AFM) and avionics manuals do not describe many of these situations, which may be because some are actually glitches. The full-motion simulators at professional training providers do not accurately replicate what we see either.”

Another pilot chimed in on the same topic. “Avionics doing something other than what we expected is always a distraction. It can be hard to give up trying to fix the problem. Poor software interfaces are a leading factor. I think designers should be forced to try and use this gear in flight [before it is certified].”