After a single airliner went ever so slightly astray because its flight crew were using laptops in the cockpit, lawmakers are poised to bring regulations crashing down that forbid almost any kind of gadget being used by pilots. That's just dumb.
All this fuss is about Northwest Flight 188 a few weeks ago. During a regular, unsurprising and otherwise uneventful flight to Minneapolis the plane, which was carrying 144 passengers, dropped out of contact with air traffic controllers. As a result it ignored flight direction instructions and repeated calls to respond to radio commands, and kept flying. In fact it was out of touch for 91 minutes, and flew past its destination and on over Wisconsin—only turning around and contacting ground crew when alerted by a flight attendant.
What caused all this to happen—a terrorist attack? A mechanical failure? A mysterious alien abduction or Fringe-like parascientific event? Nope. The two pilots were busy fussing with their own laptops to work out an argument about a new piece of crew scheduling software, and basically forgot what they were supposed to be doing. This isn't, in fact, against any FAA regulations—by using their machines the crew weren't violating any rules, as they weren't in landing approach or below 10,000 feet.
That's about to change, thanks to Sen. Byron Dorgan—chair of the aviation subcommittee—who's tackling the problem with doberman-like fierceness. Within a week he's planning on introducing a new law that would forbid the use of personal laptops or, indeed, any kind of personal gizmo like an MP3 player in the cockpit.
It's daft. It ignores the whole slew of valuable airline pilot Apps for the iPhone, for example. What will our pilots do during those long boring hours while the autopilot is busy flying the aircraft? Without PSPs or iPods and to amuse them, surely they're in danger of falling asleep from boredom—and doesn't that sound more dangerous than a teeny, tiny overshoot? If anything we should demand more gadgets in the cockpit to keep the crew alert, keep them ahead of the technological edge, and keep their fingers nimble and exercised from all that game playing to be ready to push the myriad of little buttons on the flight computers. And possibly to cause more distracted overshoots which would, like Flight 188's case, result in senior-level White House terrorist alerts. After enough of those, perhaps the lawmakers would realize what a stupidly hypersensitive social situation they're inflicting on the world.