Perhaps it was the ultimate attempt at multi-tasking that proved to be so damning. That two airline pilots were computing away at FL 370 while nobody was minding the store on their Airbus flight deck is quite a revelation. As everyone knows by now, they were incommunicado for over an hour.
Laptops and Electronic Flight Bags are appropriately used in flight when they are used for operational purposes and don’t interfere with the primary job of running the aircraft. That doesn’t seem to be the case here.
Fatigue conspiracy theorists will bet that the crew was sleep-deprived and that sounds more defensible than this explanation but we’ll ultimately find out. Either way, it’s a bad deal.
Aside from the expected media circus, let’s hope that the FAA, NTSB and congress have a sensible response. While I empathize with the two crew-members who may have used really bad judgment since they will likely be joining the unemployment lines, the airline and the authorities need not over-react. By my count, at least four rules were violated and sufficient to quietly dispatch these pilots:
91.123 Compliance with ATC Clearances and instructions.
91.135 Operations in Class A Airspace
91.183 IFR communications
91.13 Careless and reckless operation
Let me add three more aviation axioms that were ignored: Aviate, Navigate, Communicate.
In our hyperactive world, this should be a reminder to all that texting, even when using a laptop in the not-so-wide-open spaces of the flight levels, just isn’t smart. It’s such an extreme case one could almost let it go, but it serves as a solid case study regarding distraction in the cockpit. Think you can do it all with no degradation? The facts and science say otherwise.
If fatigue was the problem, it broadens the discussion but why would the crew lie? That just compounds the difficulty.
This is a mess for the airlines. If this had happened to a GA aircraft, it would have been a PR disaster. You can’t defend the indefensible.