In this image released by FlightAware.com, the flight path of Northwest Flight 188 on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2009 is shown. Two Northwest Airlines pilots who overshot their destination by 150 miles before turning back, Wednesday evening, Oct 21, 2009, should have had numerous warnings as they approached and passed Minneapolis: cockpit displays, controllers trying repeatedly to reach, the city lights twinkling below. (AP Photo/FlightAware.com) (Associated Press)

The real distractions for pilots

The scolds in Congress pushing for legislation banning nonessential gadgets from the cockpit are on the wrong track


Patrick Smith
November 6, 2009 6:05AM (UTC)

For those of you who live in a cave and didn't catch it, back on Oct. 21, both pilots of Northwest Flight 188, an Airbus A320 bound from San Diego to Minneapolis, went mentally AWOL somewhere over Minnesota -- distracted by their laptop computers, so they say -- missing a series of air traffic control calls and straying off course. The incident sparked a media frenzy that lasted nearly two weeks.

Now, as I feared might happen, the witch hunt is on: Politicians are weighing in, pushing for federal legislation that would prohibit pilots from using laptop computers and other devices while flying. 

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First on this square-wheeled bandwagon is Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who wants to ban all nonessential gadgets from the cockpit. 

"With dozens or sometimes hundreds of lives in their hands," said Sen. Menendez, "we need to ensure that pilots are focused on one thing only: getting their aircraft from point A to point B safely and efficiently." 

"What's true in a car is generally true in an airplane," he added, demonstrating an exquisite knowledge of how jetliners are operated, "and we need to address distracted flying, just as we are addressing distracted driving. The fact that there isn't already a prohibition on 'texting while flying' for airplanes seems reckless." 

Well, except that such rules do in fact exist. Almost all airlines prohibit the personal use of computers in the cockpit, and the Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) restrict a pilot's use of certain other devices just as they do for passengers. Is a federal law going to make any difference?  

And if Menendez is truly that concerned about "distraction," why is he not weighing in on the improvement of flight and duty time regulations, which, believe me, are a much bigger threat to safety than a pilot's laptop or iPhone. 

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Chiming in with Menendez is his colleague Al Franken of Minnesota. Now, I was a fan of Franken going back to his early days on "Saturday Night Live" in the 1970s (Franken & Davis, not Stuart Smalley), but I wish he'd butt out of this. 

"As passengers, we open our laptops on airplanes for one reason," wrote the senator in a statement. "To distract ourselves from the fact that we're flying. But airline pilots can't be distracted from constant monitoring of their aircraft and traffic." 

Constant monitoring? What does that mean, Al? I can't argue with the gist of your concern -- like anybody else you want pilots to be, as we say in the biz, situationally aware. But how much do you know, honestly, about what goes on in a cockpit at 35,000 feet during cruise flight -- about which things pilots need to monitor, and how? 

"We all pay a lot for air travel," added Franken. "I think an attentive pilot should be included in that ticket price." 

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Now he's being cute, and so I can't resist: This is ripe for argument, Senator, but I'll submit that we don't pay a lot for air travel, comparatively speaking. Airfares have been in decline for each of the past 10 months, and on average we're paying the same to fly today that we were paying in the 1980s. And, of course, an attentive pilot (two of them to be more accurate, and sometimes a third or fourth) is included in that ticket price -- though one of the reasons they are earning 20-40 percent less than in years past is because that ticket price is so low. 

I'm just saying. 

Although what occurred over Minneapolis was an obvious dereliction of duty on the part of the crew, the media's fixation on the event was and remains vastly disproportionate to any danger the passengers faced. To have members of the U.S. Senate joining the fray ratchets up the hysteria even more. Of all the things government can and should be doing to improve commercial air safety -- from overhauling the lunacy of the Transportation Security Administration to dealing with the very real dangers of lithium-ion batteries carried as cargo -- for any lawmaker to spend even five minutes on a proposal like this is shameful. Alas issues involving batteries aren't very sexy, lacking the more scandalous aspects of our wayward pilots and their PCs. 

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And what exactly constitutes a distraction? Are Franken and Menendez suggesting that, for example, a pilot on a nine-hour flight be banned from snapping a photograph while traversing the grandeur of Greenland,  or shooting a few seconds of video?  I try not to overuse the word "preposterous," but in this case it's perfect. Such rules would do nothing -- nothing -- to enhance safety. Should pilots be banned from eating meals or carrying on conversations? Is everything under suspicion save for staring straight ahead? 

Ultimately, I think there are two underlying factors at work here. 

First, despite my best efforts over the past seven years, the truth remains that a vast majority of people have no real idea what the environment of a cockpit is like. They have little understanding of what an airline pilot actually does up there, and what the repercussions of certain mistakes are -- or aren't. 

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Pilots are at times extremely busy; at other times there are long stretches of low workload. Duties come and go, ebb and flow, and an aircraft will not suddenly flip upside down or come screaming out of the sky if a pilot's attention is temporarily diverted. Indeed it often needs to be diverted. If you want to guarantee more tired and brain-fried pilots, the best way to do it would be through some of that "constant monitoring" that Sen. Franken seems to be hinting at. 

Meanwhile, nervous passengers hear the term "pilot error" and it frightens them. Occasionally it should, but I don't always like that term because it fosters the ridiculous idea that any error is a potentially fatal one, and that for a flight to be safe its pilots cannot in some way err. In practice pilots make minor, inconsequential mistakes all the time -- just as any professional does in any line of work. There is no such thing as a perfect flight, and we will not, ever, engineer, automate or legislate this reality away. Considering the rarity of crashes, people should be more comfortable with that. 

I also sense that this is yet another manifestation of people's distrust and dislike for airlines.  Pilots, more so than most airline employees, usually escape the traveling public's wrath, but we're not immune (especially when people have this crazy, ill-formed idea that pilots are bringing in huge salaries in exchange for little or no actual work). Politicians smell blood, and this is an easy way for them to look good. Really, what's to lose in any legislation that in some way takes airlines to task? 

Am I absolving the Northwest pilots of blame? Am I advocating that crews should be allowed to break out their laptops to play computer games or surf the Internet while flying? No. But here again we are witnessing one of this country's most wasteful and self-defeating tendencies: that of coming up with unrealistic, zero-tolerance solutions to problems that are either greatly exaggerated, badly misunderstood, or that don't exist in the first place. 

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Lastly, a quick thanks to the many readers who sent condolences and other kind words after the death of my mother. I received more than 150 e-mails during the past several days, in addition to the dozens of posts left in the letters section of last week's column. I could not respond to everybody with a personal thank-you, but all of your letters were appreciated.  

I was going through some of my mother's things a few days ago, and among the items I found were her American Airlines stewardess wings, an "AA" eagle lapel pin, and a "Stewardess Corps" pendant, all from 1965. They are rendered in sterling silver -- tarnished but beautifully engraved.  

It should go without saying that airlines no longer give out sterling silver wings. 

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The first airplane I was ever on, big or small, was an American Airlines Boeing 727, in April of 1974. We flew from Boston to Washington, D.C., and they served sandwiches and cheesecake -- yes, in economy class on an 80-minute trip. I remember the stewardess asking if I wanted seconds. 

The photo you see here,  taken by my mother, shows me and my sister walking up the stairs to that airplane. 

There are some definite date markers in that shot -- the haircuts, the clothes, the old-timey air-stairs in lieu of the modern jet bridge. 

Astute viewers will notice one thing that hasn't changed, though: the American Airlines livery. I know of no major carrier that has stuck with the same color scheme and logo for so long. The bare polished aluminum, the gothic tail bird and tricolor cheat; there's nothing particularly beautiful about it, but I hope they keep it going -- if for no other reason than it bucks the annoying "in motion" livery theme that is now so common among airlines. Take a look at the tarmac palette these days -- there are enough streaks, swishes, swirls and curls out there to make anybody dizzy, most of them indistinguishable from each other. Carriers want to appear slick, sleek and modern, but they've jettisoned their identities in the process. 

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I am really fond of those drive-up stairs. There's something dramatic about stepping onto a plane this way: the ground-level approach along the tarmac followed by the slow ascent. The effect is similar to watching the opening credits of a film -- a brief, formal introduction to the journey. By contrast, the jet bridge (Jetway if you prefer) makes the plane itself feel almost irrelevant; you're merely in transit from one annoying interior space (terminal) to another (airplane cabin). Many of the overseas routes I fly find me at airports that still employ stairs, and I always get a thrill from them.  

All right, except for those times when it's 95 degrees and I've got 90 pounds of luggage.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

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Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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