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NTSB Suggests Recording Pilots’ Chatter In-Flight

Following a series of incidents in 2009 that drew pilot behavior into sharp focus, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has reccommended that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) use onboard black box recorders to monitor and review pilot chatter and conduct in-flight. USA Today‘s Alan Levin writes that the move would be “unprecedented,” and that it “represents the first time that workplace monitoring could extend into the nation’s cockpits.”

The two most notable airline incidents in 2009—the crash of Continental Flight 3407 outside Buffalo, and, in August, the Northwest incident involving a plane that overshot Minneapolis by some 100 miles—involved pilots who, to a degree, were not paying enough attentionto flying their aircraft. NTSB Chairwoman Debbie Hersman told USA Today that if accidents rates are to be reduced, “It is essential to understand what is going on in the cockpit.” According to Levin, “Investigators say the effort is part of a broader trend to reduce misbehavior and inattention by transportation workers in the age of instant messaging and cellphones.” He also writes that the NTSB says “the reviews should be done anonymously and could not be used to punish individual pilots.”

But critics of the NTSB’s proposal point to two main drawbacks: Recording all in-flight chatter represents an unwarranted invasion of privacy, and, perhaps more importantly, the idea fails to address the deeper and, likely, more crucial circumstances that lead to these sorts of incidents.

To the second point, the investigation following Continental Flight 3407 did indeed focus largely on the pilots’ conduct and judgment. But the conclusion was that, in part, the outcome was a product of the pilots’ environment—an exhausting, stressful, and ultimately counterproductive environment characterized by a transient lifestyle, poor pay, and cramped living quarters. In his column last week, pilot Patrick Smith wrote, “In many ways the crash represented a perfect storm of everything that is wrong and dysfunctional about regional airlines, from the absurdly low pay … to the long hours and hostile working conditions.”

The fear is that increased scrutiny on pilots’ conduct in the cockpit will distract observers from these underlying issues. Of course, none of this is to say that pilot conduct isn’t crucial. Levin notes that, in the case of the Buffalo crash, “The pilots’ chit-chatting was a violation of federal regulations and came before they mishandled a warning and lost control.”

But then there is the issue of privacy. Smith writes that “a [regional pilot’s] schedule can be highly demanding. Regional pilots routinely work 12-, 13-, even 14-hour days, flying multiple legs in and out of busy airports, sandwiched between minimum-rest layovers. Actual flight time is held to a maximum of eight hours, but the time spent on duty—waiting out delays, transferring between flights, etc. — is not as strictly regulated.” Pilots’ days clearly are long and stressful enough as it is, so why subject them to a sort of Big Brother surveillance as well?

If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m leaning toward a thumbs-down on this idea, despite the NTSB’s assurances that pilots won’t be punished and this that isn’t actually a Big Brother sort of plan. It just seems like the wrong idea. Safety is as important to pilots as it is to passengers—we’re all in the same plane, after all—and careful, attentive, and serious conduct in the cockpit is essential to pilots’ livelihood and lives. With respect to the incidents mentioned above, I simply don’t buy the idea that a significant number of pilots are goofing off in the cockpit, certainly not to the extent that this sort of scrutiny is deserved.

Readers, what do you think? Is recording pilots’ in-flight chit-chat a good idea, or should the government focus its attention on other aspects of the airline industry?

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