Laptops on the flight deck – Oh My!

October 28, 2009 by Bruce Landsberg

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.

laptopLaptops 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.

05-463_FatigueIf 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.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Paul Naz

    Really bad judgement. You can teach flying skills but you can’t teach judement.
    Just a repeat of another incident years ago when the crew of a 1011 went down in the everglades. Three compinent pilots trying to change a light bulb?????? DAH

    You know if one of us GA pilots did something like that, the press would jump all over that, perhaps with help from the airlines

  • Ed Chapman

    I, too, will not attempt to defend the indefensible, but let’s keep in mind that it’s not unusual for an aircraft to fly out of one Center’s airspace without having been given the frequency change by the previous Center’s controller. Normally, the crew picks up on this after 10 minutes or so when one pilot says to the other “Say, you heard anything from Center? Give ’em a radio check.” If there is no answer, contact Dispatch and tell them you’re NORDO at (position). They contact the new Center, find out the appropriate frequency, and send it to you by ACARS. There are other suitable ways to do this, but doing it this way keeps the Dispatcher involved.
    Also, I have yet to see mention of the Airbus design deficiency that results in an ACARS message being sent to the crew without any aural notification: no bell, horn, chime, whistle, kazoo, nothing. If there HAD been such an aural alert, this would have gone from big story with jokes on Letterman and Leno, to non-event. Again, not defending the crew, but pointing out a deficiency.

  • Martin G.

    I very much agree with your saying they exercised very bad judgement. This act of complete ignorance is very unprofessional and embarrassing for the airline pilot group as a whole. In our post 9-11 age, I get very nervous when I have not heard from ATC for more than 10 or 15 minutes. If this is the case, I make a call to them to make sure we did not miss a hand off. Avoiding an F-16 on our tail is my primary motivation for this! Ignoring the whole thing for over an hour is just unbelievable considering the requirement for independent communication requirement to your company (i.e. your dispatcher) via ACARS or VHF. Seems like most of us always have 121.5 tuned up in the number two radio as well for a backup to ATC and anyone else that might need to communicate with us. I do this in the airliner as well as when I am flying my Husky around locally.

    This incident could have lead to the shoot down and death of all passengers and crew. They also could have run out of fuel. I would like to know how much fuel they had a touch down.

    No matter what poor excuse they might have come up with, unless they were unconscious from a poison gas attack or severe food poisoning, there is no excuse for ignoring EVERYTHING!

    Their excuse of “looking at the new scheduling program” not only was pathetic but a complete fabrication I am sure. It does not matter anyway.

    The only good thing about this is that now our flight attendants might check up on us more often with food and drink, but I am not holding my breath!

  • Ken Rousseau

    In regard to the crew in question of the off-course Airbus I wonder if they are not being delt with a bit too severly? Although violations were committed, who cansay they have never been where they should not be, or missed a radio call? In retrospect you must admit that there were no injuries, or damage to property, and the errors, although stupid, were not intentional in the least. I am sure that after this incident they would never do it again. I can see disciplinary action ,and suspension and retraining an option, but revocation of their pilot certificates over-kill. Remember, people who live in glass houses should be careful with stones.

  • Mark McCormick

    Nobody is mentioning that the ASAP report will nullify the revocation and then the arbitrator decides on the punishment, not Delta’s headline seeking management. For everybody out there who wants them fired just remember that you could be next.

  • david allan

    you’re paid to fly the plane, not sleep or other diversions.

  • Mark McCormick

    What really matters is the safety of the entire system. So, will all of you perfect pilots out there support a real witch hunt? Lets start with the recovering alkies who have special issuance medicals. Remember Lyle Prouse? He got his job back. Revoke all of those medicals. Ever had a DUI? You are fired. Get rid of ASRS. It’s just an escape for the incompetent. Get to work y’all.

  • Ken W.

    Disappointing to see the press sensationalization of this event before the investigation is complete. Did the FAA, backed into a corner by the press, react in knee-jerk fashion by revoking their certificates before due process is complete? Has their ASRS/ASAP report been received, reviewed and acted upon? The means of their distraction (laptop) is not the issue–in the old days, they would have been reading an inch thick document of paper–would that have caused the same event and subsequent reaction? Was the airplane equipped with an ACARS chime, and was it working? Let’s wait and avoid speculation until all the facts are in before condemning this crew. We need to learn from what happened so that we can prevent it from happening again. The sole act of revoking their certificates without due process does not accomplish that.

  • Art Fruncillo

    Let’s look at this unfortunate situation from the point of view of the flying public.
    If I’m in the cabin of an airliner with a locked cockpit door and I’m seeing my home port glide under me, 37,000 feet below, and then we continue on, on on -no word from the flight crew – I’m going to start to think that, if I ever get down alive, I’ll never fly this airline again. Sad to say, after perhaps only the first mistake in an otherwise unblemished career, these guys are going to be made an example of, both by the FAA and their employer.

  • Richard Partridge

    I always taught my flight students: FIRST, FLY THE AIRPLANE!

  • Airbus 320 PIlot

    The backlash and regulatory over-kill has already crossed the pacific. An airline captain has already been failed on a line check for using an electronic device (iPhone in “Airplane Mode” – no cell signal send/receive capability) to perform a quick check of crosswind component prior to takeoff using an application on the iPhone (yes it has been tested to verify that it is more accurate than the chase thru chart from the dark ages that continues to be published in “approved manuals” that are neither user friendly or designed to minimized error). Tower reported winds were very close to aircraft operating manual published limits. Criteria used? Use of an electronic device in the cockpit. I guess common sense is just not that common…..either among regulators and or pilots who commit the indefensible. Just my 2 yen……