OUR OPINION: Too soon to ban laptops from cockpits

Texting while driving is one thing. The evidence on that is in, and the conclusion is hard to avoid: The practice is wildly dangerous, and authorities are right to be talking about a ban.

Texting while driving is one thing. The evidence on that is in, and the conclusion is hard to avoid: The practice is wildly dangerous, and authorities are right to be talking about a ban.

But Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and others in Washington are jumping the gun by trying to ban the use of personal computers in airline cockpits. For his part, Franken reacted within hours of hearing that the pilots who flew 150 miles past their destination last week were distracted by their computers.

That's too early to be talking about changing federal law -- especially considering that the feds haven't even finished their investigation into the incident.

The news of the overflight made Americans' jaws drop. What on Earth happened? How on Earth could it have happened?

The bad news is that the answers still are not clear. The good news is that they'll be clear very soon, thanks to the National Transportation Safety Board and its always-methodical investigations.


Until then, the news about the pilots and their computers is only the first word, not the last. It's based mainly interviews with the pilots, and that's just not enough information to be used to start passing laws.

First off, the pilots might be lying. More than a few other pilots think that's the case: Being engrossed by a laptop for a few minutes -- maybe. But staring at the screen for an hour and 18 minutes, missing radio calls and utterly ignoring the awesome responsibility of conducting a successful flight?

And not just one pilot losing track in this way, but two?

No. "The closest comparison would be, say, to an operating-room team that got so interested in watching a football game on TV that they sliced open a patient but forgot to take out his appendix," wrote James Fallows of The Atlantic magazine, himself a private pilot.

Far more likely: The pilots fell asleep and now are sticking to what they think is a more-forgivable excuse, Fallows wrote.

Second, Franken and others' quick reaction ignores the vast differences between driving a car and flying a commercial plane. Franken made the comparison explicit: "We don't tolerate texting while driving, and we're certainly not standing for it while flying," he said.

But the reason we've started to ban texting while driving is that the practice is proven dangerous. Drivers operate on narrow strips of pavement and in the presence of other vehicles. They need their eyes on the road almost every second.

Flying a modern commercial aircraft above 10,000 feet isn't like that. By those altitudes, the autopilot has been engaged, and the human pilots monitor rather than fly the aircraft.


The issue now becomes overcoming boredom. To that end, activities such as light reading actually may make flights safer rather than less safe, wrote Hemant Bhana, a UND graduate and FAA contractor who worked as an airline pilot for 10 years.

"Of course, pilots should never read or chat at inappropriate times, nor should they become so engrossed in their activities that they forget to land at their destination," Bhana wrote in a Minnesota Public Radio op-ed.

"However, the benefits of keeping mentally stimulated and engaged through reading and chatting (at the appropriate time) far outweigh any risks."

Investigators may yet find that personal laptops are too distracting and should be banned from the cockpit at all times. But that evidence is not in, so the time for a ban is not now.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald

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