Feature

Pilots, laptops, and air safety

Were the Northwest pilots who overshot Minneapolis browsing their PCs or sleeping? Which would be worse?

Two Northwest Airlines pilots who overshot their destination, Minneapolis, by 150 miles said they weren't napping, but reviewing new company policies on their laptop computers. Either way, they were violating airline safety policy. Should passengers be concerned that pilot boredom and distractions are making the skies less safe? (Watch a CBS report on the pilots' cyberspace distraction)

Autopilot can make pilots dangerously complacent: It's good news that the pilots of Northwest Airlines Flight 188 weren’t asleep, says Scott McCartney in The Wall Street Journal. The bad news is they “just plain weren’t paying a lick of attention to flying the airplane” as they worked on their laptops. Autopilot has made flying a “boring” but safer task. If we’re not careful, though, pilot complacency will make it more dangerous again.
"NWA Flight 188: Pilots say distraction, laptops led to over-flight"

It could have been worse: Good thing the airliner wasn’t equipped with in-flight Wi-Fi, says Ross Miller in Engadget. It’s bad enough that the pilots were intensely studying airline crew scheduling software—imagine “how far off they’d have been if the pilots had access to World of Warcraft.”
"Pilots too busy with laptops to remember flight path"

Distractions weren't the problem here: It's simply "impossible to believe" that these pilots got lost in their laptops, says James Fallows in The Atlantic. It's also far more damning than the “story they’re resisting—that they simply fell asleep.” Blaming the overshoot on “intense laptop use” would be like surgeons saying they were so engrossed in a football game that they sliced open a patient but forgot to remove his appendix—in other words, “beyond the pale.”
"More on the Minneapolis overflight"

Wrong. Automated cockpits make boredom a threat: Pilot fatigue “is certainly an increasing concern,” says Clive Irving in The Daily Beast. But so is the newer problem of the “undemanding workload of highly automated cockpits.” The Northwest pilots admitted to the “euphemism of losing ‘situational awareness’”—perhaps another way of saying they were “bored out of their minds.” Is it so hard to believe that they’d turn to laptops to kill time?
"The new cockpit threat"

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