What is the problem?
Distraction is a growing and life-threatening problem in all modes
of transportation. The increasing prevalence of personal electronic
devices (PEDs), such as cell phones and tablets, in aviation
operations has only expanded the potential ways pilots and other
aviation safety-critical personnel can become distracted. We know
that a loss of situational awareness in the air or on the ground can
have potentially catastrophic results.
Many aviation operations and activities involve communicating
and coordinating with others—including crewmembers, air traffic
controllers, and dispatchers. But when pilots or other aviation safetycritical
personnel introduce nonessential distractions, such as PEDs
or personal conversations not related to work, into the cockpit or
onto the tarmac, the risk to public safety increases exponentially.
Pilots involved in general aviation (GA) operations (Part 91) are
more susceptible to distraction-related accidents because there
are no federal regulations, such as the “sterile cockpit” rules
seen in commercial airline operations, for this particular aviation
segment. Additionally, personaluse, recreational aircraft are often
unaffiliated with companies; therefore, they are not subject to
corporate safety policies, which could address PED use.
The presence of cell phones and other electronic devices in the
cockpit has led to midair collisions in the GA environment. Technology, no
matter its purpose, has introduced challenges to the see-and-avoid
concept. Aviation applications on PEDs, although useful, can lead to
more head-down time, limiting a pilot’s ability to see other aircraft.
Contributing to the problem is the widespread belief by many
that they can multitask and still operate an aircraft safely. But
multitasking is a myth; humans can only focus cognitive attention
on one task at a time.
What can be done?
The consequences of visual, manual, cognitive, and auditory
distractions can be seen in all modes of transportation. In
commercial operations, all safety-critical personnel must commit
to minimizing distractions, and companies have a corporate
responsibility to develop policies to reduce distraction. Distraction
must be managed—even engineered out—to ensure safe operations.
A cultural change is needed for all aviation personnel to understand
that their safety and the safety of others depends on disconnecting
from deadly distractions.
To address the problem of fatigue, the following actions should be taken:
- In support of the “sterile cockpit” regulations, develop procedures
and strategies for pilots to help them identify and avoid nonwork-
related distractions. These strategies should ensure pilots
only direct their attention to operationally relevant information to
maintain flight safety.
- Establish procedures for safety-critical personnel other than
pilots—including all crew, mechanics, ramp workers, and others—
related to PED use. In 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration
(FAA) issued its final rule, Prohibition on Personal Use of Electronic
Devices on the Flight Deck (Part 121), and it also published guidance
encouraging the aviation industry to expand procedure manuals and
training programs to include other personnel in the prohibition of
PEDs in the operational environment.
- Ban the nonoperational PED use in Part 135 and Part 91 aircraft. The findings of the fatal crash of an Air Methods EMS helicopter flight in 2011 points to
the need to address distraction in all aircraft types. In that accident,
texting while flying was at least in part responsible for the crash.
Four people—the pilot, a nurse, a paramedic, and the patient—died in
- Commercial pilots should comply with FAA rules and ensure a
“sterile cockpit” environment. In 1981, the FAA introduced the “sterile
cockpit rule” (Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 121.542),
which prohibits distracting personal activities during critical phases
of flight, including all ground operations involving taxi, take-off, and
landing, and flight operations below 10,000 feet (except cruise).
In 2014, the FAA codified all policies and procedures and issued a
rule prohibiting pilots from engaging in nonessential conversations
or using mobile phones, tablets, or laptops for personal use while
on duty. Nonessential conversation was an early form of internally
generated (self) distraction in the cockpit, and accident history
shows it can severely interfere with pilots’ ability to complete tasks
and maintain situational awareness.
- All other pilots must voluntarily reduce and manage distractions
to maximize attention. Keep phones off and out of the environment
and focus on the task at hand until it is safely completed. Avoid
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