November 4, 2009

Should Laptops Be Banned From Cockpits?

The recent incident involving a Northwest Airlines plane missing Minneapolis by 150 miles has spurred lawmakers to seek a ban on the use of laptops and other personal electronic devices in airline cockpits.

Chairman of the aviation subcommittee, Sen. Byron Dorgan, said in an interview that his staff is busy drawing up a bill he hopes to introduce in about a week.

After the incident on October 21, the senator was shocked to find that the Federal Aviation Administration does not already prohibit pilots from using laptops, DVD players, MP3 players and other devices while in the air, except under 10,000 feet during take-off or landing.

The infamous pilot duo of Northwest Flight 188 told National Transportation Safety Board investigators they had not been aware that the air traffic controllers and airline dispatchers had been trying to contact them repeatedly because they were on their laptops working out a new crew scheduling program.

They claim that this is the reason that the plane, carrying 144 passengers, was out of touch with anyone on the ground for 91 minutes, which triggered a military response to prepare fighter jets for launch and the White House situation room to warn senior White House officials.

By the time a flight attendant got the pilots' attention, they had already missed Minneapolis and were over Wisconsin.
"We now understand from this flight at least that this can happen and there ought to be a more clear understanding by everyone in the cockpit that there is a national standard that would prohibit this and that they need to take it seriously," said Dorgan, D-N.D.

Delta Air Lines, which acquired Northwest last year, prohibits the use of personal laptops by pilots during flight. Therefore, captain Timothy Cheney of Gig Harbor, Washington and first officer Richard Cole of Salem, Oregon were suspended, pending an investigation. Meanwhile, their licenses have been revoked by the FAA and the NTSB is looking into the cause of the incident.

Ultimately, Dorgan said he is expecting his proposal to be part of a larger aviation bill pending before the Senate. As of now, he does not foresee any opposition to the measure.

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., has also said he would like to introduce legislation to ban pilots from using laptops and other personal devices during flight, and a number of other senators voiced their support for such a measure at a hearing last week.

According to Dorgan, his bill will allow only "electronic flight bags", which are laptops with navigational tools that are given to pilots by some airlines.


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