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Pilots Respond to PED Restrictions In the Flight Deck Imposed by FAA

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Flight Chic readers will remember that I posted about the regulatory update from the FAA which restricted the use by flight crew of PEDs in the cockpit.

Pilots have responded strongly to this InFO document, pointing out that these restrictions are unnecessary and may, they argue, have the opposite effect than that intended: actually serving to compromise safety.

It’s an interesting argument.  The point made by Ron Rapp (an ATP-rated pilot who has flown over 7,000 hours over the past 15 years) is that PEDs help pilots stay awake during inactive phases on long flights.  As he says in his post:

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.

Karlene Petitt, a Seattle-based A330 Pilot who authored the books Flight for Control and Flight For Safety, and blogs on issues affecting pilots and passengers on her blog Flight To Success, explains the issue of circadian rhythms on her post about the FAA’s InFo document, stating:

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.

Working against these arguments are the statements to the NTSB from two Northwest Airlines pilots who flew right past their destination in 2009, because they were distracted on their personal computers.

Punishing thousands of pilots for the egregious errors of two may seem to be overkill; but when an investigation is carried out by the NTSB and findings are concluded the expectation both from the industry and the flying public is that some regulatory change will take place.

Still, there is another complication, which I mentioned in my original post, and that is a matter of enforcement.

The policies on PEDs in the Flight Deck vary from airline to airline–as do the policies on the use of Tablet-based Flight Bags which are increasingly becoming standard equipment in carriers around the world.

While some carriers have strict limitations on what content can be stored or accessed on these devices, even restricting the installation of Apps by pilots on the devices issued to them, others have more liberal policies.

Some airlines allow their pilots to use the tablets according to their personal needs–arguing that there is no harm to their pilots catching up on the news from the ground.

Rapp speaks to this point of view of certain airlines when he says:

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.

At issue here is how such a ban could be enforced universally, when some pilots will still be able to use applications on their company-issued devices unless their airline restricts it.  Also, if such a ban is warranted in the US, how will international carriers who fly into US airspace, and who may have different policies and regulations enforce this?

These are questions best answered by people who know first-hand both the regulatory point of view and the point of view of pilots.  One factor which may help to clear the air on this matter is that Christopher Hart, the new Chairman of the NTSB is a licensed pilot.

I heard Hart speak at the IATA Cabin Operations Safety Conference in Madrid this May, and was impressed by his deep concern over key safety issues and commitment to further improving the aviation infrastructure.  He also came across as a likeable, very reasonable and intelligent man.

This InFO document was issued prior to his appointment. It will be interesting to see if Hart takes a position on the question.

Flight Chic will be watching developments and asking questions of the authorities.  I’ll post an update as soon as something is confirmed.

In the mean time, what are your thoughts?  Does a restriction on PED use in the Flight Deck do more harm than good?

Featured Image: Airplane Vortex via Langley Research Center, NASA

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