Poorly informed members of Congress respond to aviation problems by proposing hare-brained interventions. And surely one of the most hare-brained is to ban portable electronic devices such as laptops from airliner cockpits.
To be sure, it was outrageous that two Northwest/Delta pilots flew 150 miles past their Minneapolis destination last month while engrossed in a heated discussion over things they were going over via laptops. (Also outrageous, though getting much less attention, was the failure of air traffic control to do anything about this flight being incommunicado for more than an hour.) In response, Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D, WV) and Byron Dorgan (D, ND) have introduced the Distracted Flying Act that would ban laptops and other portable electronic devices from the cockpit.
What is unappreciated by these lawmakers is the rapid spread of Electronic Flight Bags (EFBs) on aircraft. The idea is to replace a plethora of maps, charts, and logbooks with compact, quickly-accessible electronic information. The most common form of EFB is called Class 1 and is, in fact, a laptop computer, specific to the aircraft type, including charts, weight-and-balance information, company policies and procedures, etc. More advanced Class 2 and Class 3 EFBs are starting to appear, with the Class 3 units far more specialized and provided as original equipment on new planes such as the Airbus A-380. Meanwhile, for the thousands of planes in service already, Class 1 laptop-type EFBs are the only game in town, adopted thus far by at least five major U.S. airlines, in some cases with federal assistance.
Yes, the small print in the senators’ bill provides for exemptions for electronic devices that are used to operate the plane or to enhance its safety (whatever that means). But that still inserts congressional micromanagement into what should be either an FAA safety regulatory decision or an airline flight operating policy decision. One of the reasons Congress created safety regulatory agencies like the FAA is to ensure that specialized knowledge and expertise would be used to shape safety regulation, where difficult trade-offs are nearly always involved. Micromanagement by Congress conflicts directly with this sensible division of responsibility.
Footnote: Last week, the Wall Street Journal wrote about a bill by Sen. Jim DeMint (R, SC) that allow the use of cockpit voice recording information to monitor and discipline airline pilots. While I’m sure Sen. DeMint (like Rockefeller and Dorgan) means well, this kind of thing runs directly counter to the “just culture” idea under which pilots and air traffic controllers are encouraged to voluntarily report safety problems because they are protected from disciplinary action. If this measure should become law, it would set back the cause of increased air safety thanks to non-punitive reporting of problems.