FAA Issues 'Guidance' For Cockpit Safety

Responding to a series of headline-grabbing incidents involving so-called "cockpit distractions," the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued a "guidance" memo for cockpit safety. The stated purpose of the memo is to "emphasize to crewmembers and operators that engaging in tasks not directly related to required flight duties, including using personal electronic devices (PED), constitutes a safety risk."

But—is a memo such as this really necessary?

Here are some more points from the memo:

  • Describing the incidents that led to the memo: "In one instance, two pilots were using their laptop computers during cruise and lost situational awareness, leading to a 150 mile fly-by of destination. In another instance, a pilot was texting after the aircraft pushed back from the gate and before the take-off sequence. In still another instance, a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) inspector in the jump seat overheard a crewmember’s mobile phone ring during the takeoff roll."
  • The FAA's rationale: "While PEDs can be valuable tools in aviation operations, crewmembers cannot permit PEDs to distract them from focusing on duties and responsibilities related to the flight. Regulations regarding sterile flight decks prohibit crewmembers from performing any duties not relating to the safe operation of the aircraft during critical phases of flight. At other phases of flight, crewmembers must avoid becoming distracted by any task not related to the safe operation of the flight, whether it involves use of a PED or not. Maintaining the public trust is both a personal responsibility and professional requirement."
  • The FAA's recommendation: "Operators should create a safety culture that clearly establishes guidance, expectations and requirements to control cockpit distractions, including use of PEDs, during flight operations. Directors of Operations and Directors of Safety should review and reinforce these policies and guidance. Directors of training should review and reinforce crew training on this subject. Crewmembers should evaluate their personal practices, including those regarding the use of PEDs, to ensure they do not distract from or interfere with duties and responsibilities related to the flight."

In his blog, Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Ray LaHood adds, "The flying public can't have it. They expect their pilots to focus on flying safely at all times. And rightly so ... Our aviation system has a terrific safety record, but we can only maintain that record by minimizing risk wherever possible, including in the cockpit."

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First of all, if I were among the near-total majority of pilots who haven't had safety issues related to PEDs, or who have never used PEDs in the cockpit, I'd be pretty insulted by this. It should go without saying that people who fly planes for a living would adhere to a high standard of safety and practice an abundance of caution, yet the memo assumes a collective ambivalence, among pilots, toward the importance of the job. But does anyone actually think pilots aren't aware of their paper-thin margin of error, or the grave consequences that could follow a mistake? Anyone?

Which is not to say that cockpit distractions, especially during take-off, landing, and other crucial periods of a flight, are acceptable. But where do you draw the line? LaHood says we should expect pilots "to focus on flying safely at all times," but what does that mean in practical terms? What constitutes a PED? Most importantly, who enforces these guidelines? If you ask me, the answer to all this is simple: Trust your pilot.

Speaking as a traveler, I want my pilot to be comfortable, at ease, properly rested, and, obviously, not impaired by drugs or alcohol. To me, this sounds like a pilot who can "focus on flying safely at all times." Beyond that, I don't really care what's going on in the cockpit as long as I get from Point A to Point B in one piece, on time, and with minimal disruption. I trust my pilot to make the right decisions, and I expect those who don't to be dealt with appropriately. The pilots who zoomed past Minneapolis last fall were suspended and won't likely fly again, at least not in the same capacity. The story could, and likely should, have ended there.

Instead, the Minneapolis incident and a few other isolated bad decisions have launched a reactionary frenzy, culminating in this toothless "guidance" memo from the FAA, which, in my opinion, accomplishes little beyond embarrassing pilots and potentially scaring the public into thinking their pilots aren't paying attention. Honestly, are we any safer now that the FAA has publicly instructed airlines to create a "safety culture"?

Look, you can't regulate the risk out of flying. At the end of the day, there's a human at the helm, and humans, even highly trained, experienced pilots, will inevitably make mistakes. But my fear is that you can regulate risk into flying by creating an environment that isn't conducive to focused, attentive flying. Fortunately, the FAA's memo is guidance, not regulation, but my reaction would be the same either way: Give our pilots a break.

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