Flying While Distracted (FWD)

By now it’s old news that pilots of a Northwest flight that overshot its Minneapolis destination by 150 miles a week ago were looking at their laptops. Yesterday the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said it had revoked the licenses of the pilots. They have 10 days to appeal the decision to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

According to a Wall Street Journal article, federal safety rules prohibit laptops in cockpits below 10,000 feet, but allow them during cruise. However, it cited a statement from Delta (now merged with Northwest) that the airline expressly forbids pilots from using laptops at any time or engaging in personal activity that could distract from flight duties.

Just a few weeks ago the U.S. Department of Transport held a Distracted Driving summit which highlighted the growing dangers of driving while distracted by texting or cellphone use. The Northwest incident underscores the point that whether it’s a car, an aircraft, a train or indeed any piece of machinery or equipment, their safe operation requires the full attention on the part of the operator.

Distraction is one part of the problem. An over-reliance on automation is another. An investigation into the June collision of two Washington D.C. Metrorail trains that left nine dead and about 80 injured focused at least partly on the fact that the moving train was operating in automatic mode, meaning that it was primarily controlled by a computer.

The use of technology has led to safer roads, skies, and workplaces to name a few, but if computers are in control, how much attention on the part of the driver or pilot or machine operator is required? Needless to say there are growing insurance implications and potential liabilities arising from these incidents. I.I.I. president Dr. Robert Hartwig recently observed that the problem of distraction is not confined to cars but is part of a greater problem associated with “distracted equipment operation†. This is leading to an epidemic of occupational injuries and workers compensation claims, he warned.  Insurers will be monitoring this  emerging issue.

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