On Tuesday, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the Federal Register which “would prohibit flight crew members in operations under part 121 from using a personal wireless communications device or laptop computer for personal use while at their duty station on the flight deck while the aircraft is being operated.” The rule was prompted by a 2009 incident in which a Northwest Airlines crew flew for 78 minutes and 150 miles past their destination without talking to air traffic controllers. It was later revealed that the crew became distracted with their laptop computers while in cruise flight. Additionally, the first officer of the Cogan Airlines flight that crashed in Buffalo in 2009 had sent text messages while the plane taxied out for takeoff.
There has long been a “sterile cockpit” rule in which flight crew members are prohibited from engaging in nonessential activities that could cause distractions in critical phases of flight such as taxi, takeoff, landing and operations below 10,000 feet except for cruise flight. The NPRM notes that the new rule would expand the ban for “personal wireless communications devices and laptop computers to all phases of flight.”
There would be several exemptions to the new rule. Pilots could use their personal communications devices or laptops if the use is “directly related to operation of the aircraft, or for emergency, safety-related, or employment-related communications and the use is in accordance with air carrier procedures approved by the Administrator.” In other words, pilots can make calls related to flying the airplane, aviation emergencies (personal emergencies are specifically excluded), or if they need to call their company for an operational reason. The rule would also exempt companies that have FAA approved programs that use electronic devices such as laptops or tablets for flight operations. In recent years, several airlines have been approved to use iPads in place of paper charts and manuals.
According to the NPRM, the rule “includes, but is not limited to, devices such as cell phones, smart phones, personal digital assistants, tablets, e-readers, gaming systems, netbook computers, and notebook computers.” Under the new rule, pilots could not legally listen to music or podcasts on their iPods or read an email on their phone during any phase of flight. Ironically, although pilots would be able to legally read a newspaper after the airplane is established in cruise flight above 10,000 feet, they would not be able to read a newspaper downloaded to a tablet application or browse a newspaper site on the internet.
While well intended, the new rule may have the unintended consequence of making pilots more fatigued and less alert. In jet aircraft, some flights can be very long. A typical flight from New York to Los Angeles can last from five to six hours and transoceanic flights are normally even longer. After the airplane takes off and reaches its cruising altitude, there can be little to do for long hours. Sitting still and staring out the window with nothing to do for extended periods can be very fatigue inducing. This is especially true when the flight is a “red-eye” that is conducted on the “back side of the clock,” when the airplane is being operated during nighttime hours when the crew is normally sleeping. During such flights, having a diversion such as a newspaper, crossword puzzle, or an electronic device with music, a podcast, or an ebook can keep the crew member mentally stimulated while conducting intermittent crosschecks of the autopilot and aircraft systems.
If electronic devices are banned from the flight deck, pilots will resort to old fashioned methods of passing the time. USA Today, delivered to nearly every hotel room in the country and stocked with crossword and Sudoku puzzles, is a traditional means of passing time on long flights behind a closed cockpit door. Many flight bags contain a deck of cards, a magazine, or a paperback novel. Pulling pranks on flight attendants is also a time-honored tradition of airline pilots. If all else fails, even in the age of GPS, most airplanes are still equipped with an automatic direction finder (ADF) that is more useful for listening to Rush Limbaugh on AM radio than for navigation.
The proposed rule is not yet in effect. The FAA has established a comment period that is open until March 17. Comments can be delivered electronically via a link on the Federal Register page where the proposed rule is published. A direct link to the comment form can be found here.