Torqued: Reducing Electronic Distractions in the Cockpit Needs More than a Rule

 - June 1, 2013, 12:25 AM

Just as cellphones, tablets and laptops have become ubiquitous in the cabins of passenger aircraft, so have they become more and more common in the cockpits of our aircraft. But concerns regarding electronic distractions on the flight deck gained prominence with the infamous October 2009 Northwest flight that overshot its destination airport by 150 miles. The pilots not only overshot their airport; they flew for more than an hour without maintaining required contact with ATC. During that time, anxious controllers tried to reach the crew to no avail, as did the airline’s dispatch center.

It was not until a flight attendant buzzed the cockpit to inquire when the aircraft would be landing that the captain realized that the flight (from San Diego to Minneapolis) had overflown Minneapolis by a considerable distance. An investigation by the NTSB determined that the pilots were engrossed in their laptops, trying to figure out a new crew scheduling system implemented by Delta Air Lines as part of its merger with Northwest.   

If you’re thinking this happened to a young, novice crew, you’d be wrong. The pilots were in their fifties with thousands of hours of experience and a blemish-free flying record. Engrossed in their subject and in their electronic devices, they totally lost situational awareness. Fortunately, the flight landed safely.

But such distractions in the hands of a less experienced crew could have deadly consequences. The NTSB has just issued its findings on the fatal crash of an Air Methods EMS helicopter flight in 2011. The Board determined that texting while flying was at least in part responsible for the crash. Four people–the pilot, a nurse, paramedic and the patient–died in the accident. 

So clearly something needs to be done. On Valentine’s Day last year, Congress enacted the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which mandates the FAA issue a rule prohibiting an airline flight crewmember from using “a personal wireless communications device or laptop computer while at the flight crewmember’s duty station on the flight deck” of the aircraft while it’s being operated. (Emphasis added in italics to make sure it’s clear that this is not a limitation on the use of tablets or other electronic devices for professional purposes, such as electronic flight bags.) 

Although the FAA could have issued an immediately effective rule implementing this Congressional mandate (the FAA has the authority to issue direct final rules and it usually does so when the rule implements a law passed by Congress), for some inexplicable reason the agency chose to delay a final rule by issuing an NPRM. The FAA not only failed to issue an immediately effective rule; it chose also to ignore Congress’s order to begin rulemaking within 90 days of enactment of the law. The NPRM was not issued until January 15.

While the rule would cover only Part 121 flights (it would not have covered the EMS helicopter that crashed in 2011) it’s a start. But would a rule even go far enough? As some news reports have pointed out, Air Methods–to its credit–had a company policy prohibiting texting and flying, which the pilot apparently violated. So, at least in that case, a company rule was not enough. While legal prohibitions with the threat of FAA enforcement action against a pilot’s certificate could well have more of a deterrent effect than a company policy, they still might not be enough to change the behavior of many people seemingly tethered to their electronic devices. One could well argue that even the threat of enforcement action, given the relative privacy of a flight deck, could easily be ignored.

Cooperative Effort

So, while I believe a rule prohibiting personal use of electronic devices in aircraft cockpits (except for aircraft emergencies) is needed, I think it needs to be supplemented by an increased awareness campaign about the effect of distractions and the limitations of multi-tasking.  Recent research appears to indicate that while many people feel they can successfully multi-task, they really can’t, especially when that multi-tasking involves critical or safety-sensitive functions.

So I believe that in addition to increasing awareness of the dangers of distractions, it needs to become the norm for crewmembers, and those who work with them, to challenge their fellow pilots when they are engaged in distracting behaviors (such as personal cellphone calls or texting). Just as it became socially unacceptable for people to drink and drive, it also became socially required for people to challenge those who were under the influence and attempting to drive, including taking away their keys or calling them cabs to take them home. Many people of a certain age will remember that before MADD began its intensive anti-drinking and driving campaigns in 1980, unless someone was staggeringly drunk and about to drive a car, it was unusual for anyone to challenge someone who appeared to be under the influence.

We will never know whether the medical nurse or paramedic noticed the pilot texting during the flight, but if they had would they have felt comfortable asking the pilot to stop? It’s a fundamental issue that crew resource management has tried to address in any context where crewmembers need to communicate issues and concerns. Before the 1980s (when CRM was first developed), the captain was considered the authority in the aircraft with, at times, deadly consequences when first officers or others were hesitant to challenge that authority even though air safety required it. We need to make sure that distracting behaviors in the cockpit are appropriately challenged by those who observe them.

I have the same concerns with personal use of cellphones and other electronic devices in the hangar. Even when airline or repair station policies prohibit cellphones and other personal electronic devices, I routinely see maintenance workers talking on cellphones while in the middle of performing maintenance. Recently I saw a mechanic at a major airline working on an engine stop what he was doing, reach into his pocket and start speaking into his cell. Not good. And yes, I did say something to him.


Did you consider that maybe the mechanic was receiving instructions on a maintenance procedure via the telephone?

There are several false assumptions in your article. First is that those Northwest pilots were on their laptops . Most pilots know what they were doing (ZZZZZZZZZZZ!) , second pilots and maintenance personal regularly use their phones to communicate with Dispatch or Mx control, etc.....Third many airlines already have policies against personal phone usage at work.

Any pilot knows that the Northwest pilots were asleep, because if they were not they would have heard ATC calling them, the ACARS messages from dispatch, and even other aircraft trying to transmit to them. Plus they were both in their fifties! Having thousands of hours of flight time does not mean you are any safer of a pilot, and saying that a less experienced crew could have had deadly consequences is a completly ignorant statement.
As for the helicopter crash, they fly low to the ground with these things called "objects and structures and trees" that they can hit, which is entirely different than using an electronic device up at altitude.
Finally, an electronic device is no more distracting than a newspaper or book, the issue is when you lose situational awareness while using these or use them in critical phases of flight. I challenge you to sit on a 4 hour flight with nothing to read, work on, or play on, and don't sleep, and see how distracted your mind becomes. I understand this is our profession but we are already one of the most heavily monitored and scrutinized in the world, making an entire case based off of two events that cannot even be proved that electronics influenced the outcome is absurd. While we're at it we might as well raise the minimum flight time for airline pilots to 3000 hours because it will make everyone even more "safe."

As an airline pilot, I am so sick and tired of the over-reaching government in the ridiculous and unfounded addition of rules and regs that just keep getting piled on our profession due to 1 or 2 accidents out of hundreds of thousands of flights!! Why don't you care about all the train derailments or doctors not sleeping for days or drinking while working on critically ill patients. It is absolutely absurd to take electronic devices away from us and to a previous post, airlines do have policies on the use of those devices. You obviously have no idea what you are talking about and your just trying to get some notoriety with a popular topic based on all the focus on the Colgan accident and the NWA situation.

I'm all for restriction of the use of mobile devices during the critical phases of flight-Taxi, takeoff, landing and flight below 10,000 feet. Anything more restrictive is redicilous.

Pilots were asleep, I'd bet a million dollars on it. Being out of radio contact for an HOUR is not normal, and not responding to company messages doesn't happen when you are in a 'scheduling discussion'.

I agree wholeheartedly with all of the above statements. Your column is based on ignorance of the profession. I am a 15 year air line captain and the last thing we need is more intrusive and hysteria-based Federal Regulations. We are already the most scrutinized profession in the entire world. "Turning off our PED's" is on a briefing guide we use before each flight. Using them is expressly prohibited by our company regulations. Moreover, I often use my cell phone (at my expense) to communicate with dispatch and maintenance, as it is easier than radio (and keeps the airways clear). The only other option I have is to return to the gate, delay the flight and use the land line at the gate agent's counter. The NW pilots were sleeping. Poor crew coordination on their part as only one should have been. That way the other could wake his flying partner up before the descent. The standard brief is: "don't let me wake up and catch you asleep."

Education and training yes, more FAA intrusion, no.

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