Trust Us — We’re Professionals

ipad-flight-deck

I’ve seen some ill-conceived policies emanate from the FAA over the course of my professional flying career. Some diktats are just busy work, while others fail to achieve an otherwise admirable end. But the worst are those that create the very hazard they are supposed to prevent.

Case in point: the recent adoption of 14 CFR 121.542(d), which prohibits the use of any personal electronic devices in flight. According to the FAA, this rule is “intended to ensure that non-essential activities do not affect flight deck task management or cause a loss of situational awareness during aircraft operation.”

Sounds great on the surface, doesn’t it? I mean, who could possibly oppose a rule which the Feds ostensibly see as the aeronautical equivalent of a ban on texting while driving? Keeping distractions at bay and pilots focused on flying has got to be a wonderful enhancement for safety.

But it’s not. The flight profiles of airlines, cargo haulers, charter companies, fractionals, corporate flight departments, and even private GA operators often dictate long stretches of straight-and-level flight with the autopilot on. Surely the FAA is aware of this. Now add in circadian rhythm issues associated with overnight flights, a dark cockpit with minimal radio traffic, and a flight crew pairing who have run out of things to talk about. There’s nothing to do but stare off into the inky darkness for hour upon hour. It’s a recipe for falling asleep.

Say what you will about distractions on the flight deck, but I’d much rather see a pilot peruse an issue of AOPA Pilot while in cruise than to have that individual zoned out or inadvertently napping. For one thing, the process of waking up takes time, whereas an alert human need only change focus. We already do that dozens of times on every flight anyway. Check in on the engine instruments, then answer a question from a passenger, then look out the window, then consult a chart. We do this all day long.

Is there much difference between reading a magazine and delving into the minutia of some random page of the Jeppesen manual when they’re both a form of busy work to keep the mind engaged during slow periods in cruise? I sincerely doubt a roundtable of experts in automation and human factors would have come up with a PED ban.

I can understand prohibiting them below, say, 10,000′ when the sterile cockpit rule is in effect. That’s a busy time for pilots, and non-essential items are naturally stowed at that point anyway. But electronic devices in and of themselves can be helpful in staving off the ultimate distraction. “Flight to Safety” author and Airbus pilot Karlene Petitt said it best:

Numerous studies have shown that one of the tips to help fall to sleep is to NOT watch television or work on your computer at a minimum of an hour before bedtime. The light suppresses melatonin production and stimulates brain activity. I’m not sure about you, but I want my pilots alert with stimulated brains. Give them something to do to keep them awake.

As many of you have probably noted, this rule is located in Part 121 and therefore only applies to scheduled airlines. From maintenance requirements to medical certification, their regs are the strictest around, so perhaps this seems much ado about nothing for a general aviation audience. But the FAA is of the opinion that this limitation should reach a lot further than United and Delta:

Recommended Actions: This prohibition on personal use of electronic devices on the flight deck in the final rule is applicable only to operations under part 121. However, Directors of Safety and training managers for all operators under parts 135 and 125, as well as part 91K, are encouraged to include operating procedures in their manuals and crewmember training programs prohibiting flightcrew members from using such devices for personal use during aircraft operation.

Will this eventually reach down to Part 91? Who knows. Even if it doesn’t, the real problem is that the FAA is spoon-feeding each and every individual action and prohibition to us without making allowances for the differences inherent in each type of operation. One-size-fits-all is wonderful for tube socks and scarves, but when it comes to flight safety, it’s just bad policy.

The smart way to go about this would be to leave it to the individual company, flight department and/or individual to determine what PED policy best serves the cause of safety. If you’re Southwest Airlines or a charter operator company flying VLJs, you probably aren’t flying long-haul trips and might be fine with reasonable PED limitations. Certainly using them below 10,000′ could be prohibited. But if you’re flying international cargo in a jumbo jet or hopping continents in a Global 5000 on legs of twelve or thirteen hours? That personal electronic device could be incredibly helpful in maintaining alertness.

Whether it’s a vocation or an avocation, pilots are a professional lot who can be trusted to make their own decisions about portable electronic devices.


This article first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog.

9 comments

  1. Good article Ron. I keep an issue of IFR Magazine (see, Plug) or my personal iPad (see, double plug) loaded with aviation related texts to keep me alert during the low workload phase of cruise flight. I find reviewing related educational material a much safer alternative to the relaxed and lethargic state induced by extended chronic inactivity.

    1. IFR is a great choice. It definitely keeps your brain active!

      I wish they had run this electronic device ban by some sleep specialists, because that low activity cruise phase can be like a sensory deprivation tank, especially at night.

  2. I have to agree with Karlene again. My first real job straight out of university was a polysomnographic technologist, so circadian rhythm, and melatonin are very familiar terms to me. My personal experience, I’m the typical IFR piston single engine single pilot. “so much to do in so little time”
    I don’t want to get behind the aircraft, so between intercepting a course, keeping the engine happy, flying the plane, reading charts. Plus, “hey, I’m flying!! This is great! Last thing my brain will do is switch off now..this is what I Live for” However, I can understand on automated 121 Long Hauls with a crew of two or more it may get a little routine, and comfortable and you may catching yourself looking out the window one too many times.

    Bit I digress, I know the point of the author’s article. He is talking about a potential encompassing regulation of what we can and can not do in the cockpit with Electronic devices. I want to think my pilot is every bit alert and and focused when it comes to flying, and that he is not just waiting for a light or a bell to come on. He should be “flying” the plane. Mental stimulation could be having him back up the computer with manual R = D X T equations or manual fuel calcs. Something related to the flight. I know on RP, this is still done but only by the second officer, a pilot who never once touches the controls. Only paper work. Shifting attention from an episode of Seinfeld to managing a pressurization issue could take longer if we are waiting for Kramer to crack that one last joke.

    1. Love the Seinfeld reference! As far as the mental alertness goes, a more manual aircraft would actually help with that. I never thought this sort of thing would be an issue, even after years and thousands of hours of flying all over the country VFR and IFR. But once I started flying flights of eight or nine hours at night…

      P.S. Looking out the window? There’s nothing to see out there, my friend. :) It’s a wall of blackness. Imagine sitting in a room with all the lights turned off on a moonless night.

      1. That is true. Sometimes I wonder why I even get the window seat on those trans – Atlantic flights. There is nothing to see other than the take off and landing. Although, I have to say…even if its a sea of black..all those lights in your “office” at night sure are pretty…

        1. True enough.

          Sometimes if you turn down all the cockpit lights and displays you can see things outside if the sky is clear. On the trip back from Brazil the Milky Way was visible from FL450. Lots of stars too.

  3. Ron, I want you to know when I’m making a long flight (say from AJO to CNO) I always read my AOPA magazine to relieve the boredom
    of such a long, tedious flight. Unfortunately, just when I’m reading Barry Schiff’s always interesting columns the Chino tower will interrupt
    me with some of their nonsense about what pattern to fly to whatever runway. I find this very annoying but (to your point) am quickly alert.

    All best, Martin Benson

    1. How rude of Chino to break your concentration when you’re trying to finish an article before the wind carries it away! I would suggest turning down the volume on your radio… but we know that doesn’t end very well, right? :)

      Hope you have a happy 4th!

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