Piloting While Distracted (or Bored!)

Yesterday, I did an interview on NPR’s Talk of the Nation about the Northwest airline overflight. I was amazed, as I often am when listening to NPR, at the callers they got. In a half hour, we heard from two commercial pilots, one smoke jumper, one bus driver, a boat captain and a trucker—all of whom admitted that they struggle mightily with distraction. One of the most memorable recitations of typical distractions came from Paul the Bus Driver:

PAUL: “...[Y]ou’ve got a dispatcher who is a little perturbed that you’re 10 minutes behind schedule because somebody needed to make a potty break. I’ve got cell phones with wives, children and sick parents calling in and asking if, you know, they can find their meds. You know, I’ve got GPS systems that can be distracting in a dark night when you’re driving in rain. And then you’ve got some passengers on board who might have imbibed or are somehow in altered states and think they need to tell you all of their life’s problems.”

NEAL CONAN: “And there’s no armored door between you and your passengers.”

PAUL: “No. In fact, I’ve gotten hit by everything from vomitus to a used diaper.”

Many of the call-in drivers also confessed that boredom can be just as dangerous as distraction. One pilot admitted to having taken cat naps during the cruise portion of her flight—so that she would be more awake and engaged during the high-stress landing portion of the flight. In fact, some aviation safety advocates support formal policies allowing one pilot to take a short nap on long flights while the other stays awake. Sounds scary. But the overwhelming response of the drivers and pilots we heard from yesterday was that they are human. The sooner we treat them that way, the safer the rest of us will be.

Which is not to say pilots should be opening up their personal laptops in the cockpit. That’s indefensible. (It now appears that the pilots were out of radio contact for an hour and a half, which, if true, is appalling and reckless. The FAA revoked their licenses yesterday. You can see a copy of the revocation letter here.) But it is to say that the problem is probably bigger than the one freak incident we happened to hear about last week.