As portable electronic devices (PEDs) have become ubiquitous and a generation of new pilots is growing up on them, the aviation community faces a series of challenges in incorporating their use in the flight deck as a tool while preventing the possibility of distraction.
“There are numerous benefits for this technology,” said Doug Carr, v-p of regulatory and international affairs for NBAA. “I think the real challenge is how to use it effectively in support of the operation in ways that don't distract from the priority at the moment; which is to fly.”
That’s no easy task, Carr added, because “we see a new generation of flight deck crew members very comfortable with using these devices in every aspect of their lives.” The issue is to find a way to effectively disconnect when necessary and to provide the appropriate tools, policies, and standards on when that is appropriate, he said. Distraction on the flight deck is one of NBAA’s top safety issues, Carr said, adding this “is where a lot of our focus has been.”
AIN conducted an informal poll to gauge the use of PEDs on the flight deck and the policies of different operations. Of the respondents, 51 percent had firm written policies on their use, 30 percent said their organization had no policy, while the remaining 19 percent had only a verbal policy. The poll drew 147 responses from a cross-section of aviation, ranging from a U.S. Air Force Beechjet pilot, a piston aircraft flight instructor, and turboprop operator to midsize, large, and ultra-long-range business jet captains, BBJ pilots, and airline pilots. It also covered the gamut of operations from small operations and Part 91 flight departments, to fractional, management, charter, and U.S. and European scheduled airlines. And the jobs ranged from Part 135 CEO and director of aviation to line and contract pilots.
While providing just a snapshot of the industry’s approach to PEDs in the cockpit, the survey revealed a lack of standardization not only across aviation but even within different niches of the industry. A number of respondents from Part 91 operations said they had formal written policies regarding PED use, while a charter pilot in Los Angeles and a Boeing 777 pilot for a “major European airline” both claimed their operations had no written or verbal policy.
“It is annoying when crew are communicating on devices when they should be paying attention—aka, working,” the charter pilot said. Other scheduled airline pilots had reported their operations had written policies.
Equally varied is the view of how and when devices may (under company policy) and should be used. Numerous policies restrict use to just company furnished PEDs: phones and tablets. In fact, 86 percent of those responding said company policies permit use of company-provided tablets, while just 34 percent said personal tablets were permitted. A little more than half specified permission to use personal phones. And in 10 percent of the responses, companies permitted personal laptops.
The majority—82 percent—said they could use the PEDs while the aircraft was on the ground and 52 percent said they could use them at 10,000 feet and level at initial cruise altitude. However, 8.6 percent said company policy would permit use of devices while moving on the ground, 6.4 percent while on takeoff/climb-out, 9.7 percent on descent, 8.6 on approach, and 5.4 percent on landing.
As for how these devices are being used, not surprisingly the majority are for functions surrounding the flight: More than 92 percent said flight-data gathering activities (such as routing, weather, and traffic) were permitted; 97 percent said they could use devices for accessing charts and maps; 75 percent agreed aviation apps were permitted; and 39 percent approved of texting with flight support or maintenance personnel. Photo and video are other common areas where PED use is permitted with 18 percent of respondents specifying this option.
However, a small number of respondents noted personal uses were permitted as well, such as texting (29 percent), social media (8.6 percent), and gaming (5.4 percent).
Of the activities expressly prohibited, gaming was the top-cited at 76.2 percent, followed by social media at 75 percent and non-flight-related apps at 69 percent.
Attitudes toward Appropriate Use
Putting aside company policies, the respondents had varied opinions about what should actually be permitted. Ninety percent of respondents agreed that devices should be permitted to use on the ground while another 75 percent believe above 10,000 feet and level at initial cruise altitude is okay. Far fewer believe the same in other phases of flight: 23 percent on descent; 17 percent on approach; 14 percent while the aircraft is in motion on the ground; 13 percent during takeoff; and 11 percent while landing.
Almost all agreed that devices should be permitted for flight-data gathering (97 percent) and charts and maps (99 percent). However, 5.4 percent said devices should be permitted for social media, and 7.2 percent for gaming. As for texting, slightly less than half believe it should be permitted, even in cases involving maintenance personnel. On the use of the devices for video, 30 percent said this should be permitted in the flight deck.
As for regulations, the FAA does not recommend flight crews use PEDs for personal use at all on the flight deck, an agency spokeswoman said. “The exception is if the PED or laptop computer is directly related to the operation of the aircraft, or for emergency, safety-related, or employment-related communications,” she said. The FAA does require authorization for using a PED as an electronic flight bag in Parts 91 Subpart K, 121, 125, or 135.
“Currently there are no regulations specifically prohibiting flight crew members from using personal PEDs while at their duty station on the flight deck while the aircraft is being operated under… Part 91K and Part 125,” the spokeswoman noted. She did, however, point to Part 121 language prohibiting flight crews from using a personal wireless communications device or a laptop computer for personal use while at their duty station on the flight deck while the aircraft is being operated.
Part 135.100(b) further prohibits “any activity during a critical phase of flight which could distract any flight crewmember from the performance of his or her duties…” In Part 135, said Air Charter Safety Foundation president Bryan Burns, most standard operating procedures require a sterile cockpit on all flight activity below 10,000 feet, and some adopt such policies on the ground. Once at cruise altitude, most SOPs allow access to certain electronic devices but limit such access to only company emails and texts. Distractions such as accessing the internet are generally discouraged, he said, “but some allow limited access, usually one pilot at a time.”
Distraction or Tool?
Even with policies and regulations in place, the question remains; are PEDs a distraction? It’s a difficult issue, Carr said, because so many of the devices are finding their way onto the flight deck for a number of reasons, chief among them the transition to paperless charts. At some airports, cellular communications are the only way to get a clearance, he further noted.
Also, aviation apps, charts, and maps provide critical and helpful information to the pilot, and there is an abundance from which to choose. Pilots responding to the AIN survey listed myriad apps and programs such and AeroWeather, Windy, Flightradar24, JeppView, Jeppesen Mobile FliteDeck, ForeFlight, APG iPreFlight, FltPlan Go, Air Navigation Pro, FlightBag, LogTen Pro, CAMP Flight Scheduling, ArincDirect FOS, and MyRadar, among many others.
“The reality is, more of these devices are coming into the cockpit for operational efficiency reasons, not because people are looking to play a game or take a selfie in the cockpits. They are a part of the operation,” Carr said. “I think what the focus of our work has been, 'How do we develop meaningful uses of these portable devices in a way that contributes to safety, and not distract?'”
He acknowledged that there are situations where people do “dumb things,” highlighting the need for appropriate standards. Carr recalled an anecdote involving a captain paired with a relatively young and new first officer on a flight with a check airman onboard. While taxiing, the first officer answered two personal text messages, Carr said. The captain stopped the airplane and asked what the first officer was doing. The first officer responded that the texts were important. The captain grabbed the phone and threw it out the window, Carr said. “Some of these lessons could be expensive,” he said. “Some of these lessons could be hard.”
A quick search of NASA’s voluntary Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) yielded dozens of reports that involved PEDs. The majority of those surrounded radio interference from passengers' cellphones turned on in the cabin of Part 121 carriers. Some involved overheating issues. But the placement of the PEDs on the flight deck also has interfered with controls in some of the reports. Another aircraft’s controls froze while taxiing. The pilots pulled off the taxiway while troubleshooting but ended up burning 140 pounds of fuel as the engines ran idle. In another filing, the pilot reported being “very head-down for way too long, and not paying enough attention to the more important things” on “short final.”
Many of those responding to AIN’s survey reported distractions as a result of PED use in the flight deck. These reports came from those with written policies, verbal policies, and no policies. The majority of distractions involved missed radios calls and a few missed items on the checklist. One respondent reported that he or she “used [a PED] once during descent and missed a call on checklist. Never did it again.”
As reflected in the ASRS reports, just handling the devices can be difficult. A couple of respondents noted overheating issues, while another said, “The devices can be cumbersome at times and needy of charging or internet service. I've often been distracted while troubleshooting the iPad during operations.”
One respondent reported not having had a distraction, but conceded, “It requires discipline.” This sentiment was shared. “I am disciplined in that matter,” another respondent said, but added, “Other pilots are all over the map and routinely violate policy. [PEDs] are a tremendous tool in the cockpit, absolutely indispensable. But can easily be abused.”
Another added, “I have allowed apps as well as automation to overshadow primary duties because of the ‘bright, shiny object’ factor. It takes intent to be focused on what really is the priority.” Others take preventative measures, such as turning off the mobile phone before prestart.
Others stressed that only one crewmember should be able to use one at one time. “Most pilots usually read during cruise on long flights, but it should be in shifts,” a respondent pointed out. Phones should remain on silent mode, another responder said. Others similarly have reported getting distractions from “dings” or calls/texts come through during critical phases of flight. “Even company-related calls can distract crews in all phases of flight,” one pilot said.
As for camera use, opinions varied, but many agreed that they could be helpful to document malfunctions for maintenance purposes. One respondent was a clear "no," citing “the urge to capture spectacular images in flight.”
Other responses underscored the industry’s balancing act between using the apps for operations and eliminating distractions. Use of PEDs “gets better with increased use,” a military pilot said. “You get more familiar with what you want to do/what you're looking for.”
“The gray area is when an EFB is a PED,” another respondent said. “EFBs are used much more extensively during a flight. There should be a clear difference between EFB use and PED use. Ipads make this difference less defined. “
As for policies that should be in place, some had words of caution. “The more restrictive the policy, the more likely it is that it will be broken,” one respondent said. “A reasonable policy will yield cooperation from crew members.”
Another agreed. “These devices are so common and so useful that prohibiting their use in flight is pointless. Such regulations and/or policies simply invite widespread non-compliance. It would be preferable to advise flight crews to exercise judgment in their use then leave such use to their discretion.”
And another view: “There are times when nothing is happening in a cockpit, and having something that helps stay awake is better than the distraction it may provide.”
But not everyone agreed. Others firmly believe policies are necessary: “Before our PED policy implementation, I noticed I could easily get distracted with company and personal email/text. We had a couple of cases where one pilot was on a device while the other pilot copied the ATC clearance and the clearance got copied inaccurately. We now require, whenever possible, that both pilots hear/read and confirm the clearance.”
Others push for concrete policies. “I think more flight departments should have a well thought out and written policy. Giving ‘lip service’ to a company ‘policy’ is not an effective procedure to allow productive aviation-related use and restricting ‘social media/personal email.’"
In addition to a safety focus within the industry, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has listed “Eliminate Distractions” on its Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvement for 2019-2020. “When pilots or other aviation safety-critical personnel introduce nonessential distractions, such as PEDs or personal conversations not related to work, into the cockpit or onto the tarmac, the risk to public safety increases exponentially,” the agency said.
NBAA has held discussions with NTSB on the issue, Carr said, as well as looked at it within the association’s safety committee. But despite grappling with the issue, Carr was encouraged that many are aware of it and that awareness is “one of the reasons that the U.S. has such a great safety record… because of its commitment to procedural compliance and compliance with standards.”