an editorial opinion

Combatting boredom in the cockpit

Can strategic use of distractions enhance situational awareness?

By Shannon Forrest
FlightSafety Inc-Instructor
ATP/CFII. Flying and instructing in various business jets.

As the flight begins there is excitement and usually an initial gaggle of conversation that starts on the ground between the 2 pilots with preflight, checklist and clearance compliance. But as the flight proceeds voice communication on the flightdeck tapers off or stops completely, especially now with instigation of the sterile cockpit rule. Enroute flying at altitude becomes boring on long stretches between waypoints. As detachment, disinterest and drowsiness sets in, changes in attitude, traffic or weather or ATC instructions can occur and be missed with needed corrections from the PIC not being made in a timely manner.

On long or routine flights it is common for pilots to periodically lose interest and become disengaged with their environment for short intervals. Periods of low activity, monotonous repetition, or extended monitoring of automated systems can induce a state of mental detachment from the primary task.

Inability to refocus attention and respond to changes is often attributed to the loss of situational awareness (SA). Many factors can contribute to a SA deficit. Boredom is one of them. Defining boredom is difficult because it has many social, existential, and psychological connotations.

Although boredom is strongly associated with anxiety, depression, stress, loss of vigilance, and motivation, only a few researchers are currently studying it. York University Professor John Eastwood and his colleagues consider boredom as "the experience of being stuck in an endlessly dissatisfying present." Dr Eastwood studied the impact of boredom on the mental processes underlying attention.

What this implies is that lack of focus is not necessarily an issue of personal discipline or sloppy piloting. Rather, an underlying cognitive issue may be to blame.

Long periods of single activity or inactivity are problematic

There's no doubt that being too far removed from the aircraft can be dangerous. Remaining focused on a secondary task at the expense of the primary is a telltale sign of distraction.

On the other hand, evidence also suggests that long periods of a single activity or inactivity are equally problematic. Bored pilots tend to look for other things to do during this timeframe. The FAA addressed the issue from a regulatory standpoint in January of 1981 with the sterile cockpit rule. The regulation prohibited pilots in Part 135 and 121 operations from engaging in activities that could result in dangerous distractions during critical phases of flight.

Since then, numerous accidents have been attributed to distractions that occurred within the confines of the sterile cockpit environment. Use of electronic devices is becoming more prevalent as wireless technology becomes ubiquitous. Cases of texting and internet use are starting to appear as contributing factors.

Aside from intentional noncompliance, the sterile cockpit rule seems to be effective at reducing incidents. Which raises an interesting question: What about the cruise phase currently exempt from the rule? Do electronic devices have the same impact during cruise and if so does a ban make sense? Regulators are attempting to plug this perceived loophole by enacting a ban on all personal electronic devices on the flightdeck.

The most salient argument seems to be the case of the air carrier that in 2009 overflew the intended destination for the flight by 150 nm. The pilots claimed they were using a computer at the time.

It is important to note that several examples specified in the notice of proposed rulemaking involved sterile cockpit violations. A new rule might not be effective if a pilot decided to violate the previous one. Others examples depict cases in which a crewmember made an error and failed to turn off a device prior to flight. This is far different than intentional use or willful deviance.

Portable electronic devices have a multitude of useful aviation applications

Although the focus of an electronics ban is aimed at Part 121 operations, the outcome has widespread implications. The irony is that the devices have a multitude of useful aviation applications. Many flight departments have made the switch to all electronic medium.
As a result, operating manuals, terminal charts, performance data and checklists are now accessed via a device.

Some corporate operators are struggling with developing an acceptable personal use policy. Several already allow pilots to engage in reading to mitigate boredom. Permission comes with a couple of caveats however, it can't be done during a critical phase of flight and the material must be of a relevant technical nature.

Mimicking the Part 121 world would mean a pilot could flip through a printed copy of Professional Pilot but could not view the same document from the website on the pilot's smart reader. Sending an e-mail to the FBO regarding a late arrival and scanning the Internet for the best fuel prices would be out of the question as well.

Should the use of electronic devices be allowed by pilots in flight?

There's a growing body of evidence that suggests strategic use of distraction can actually be beneficial. Allowing pilots to access electronic devices—within certain limits—may increase vigilance by reducing boredom.

The challenge is determining when boredom causes impairment. Boredom is elusive to quantify because there's currently no direct way to measure it. Research indicates a correlation between boredom and decreased attention. However many studies use personal assessments to compute a boredom value.

Additionally, there's no established boredom level at which point performance degrades. The subjective nature of boredom exacerbates the problem in line operations. Much like a headache, the best solution for boredom is to make it go away. Escape is the option preferred by most.

A hasty retreat may work to extricate oneself from a boring sales seminar but that's not an option for someone flying or monitoring an airplane. Instead, the pilot willingly engages in something perceived as more interesting to mitigate the boredom. Whether it's a book or a smart phone, if it's within reach it is probably going to come into play.

Comparing pilot workload to that of an anesthesiologist

In 2009, Professor Jason Slagle and Dr Matthew Weinger published a study on vigilance and workload in the journal Anesthesiology. The authors were interested in measuring the vigilance of anesthesiologists engaged in unrelated activities during a surgery. The correlation between anesthesiologists and pilots is that both typically engage in high workload for only a small percentage of the duty period.

Workload is low the rest of the time. A surgery includes an induction phase, putting the patient "under", and an emergence phase, bringing the patient "back". These are comparable to takeoff and landing, respectively. Much like the cruise phase of flight, the period in the middle, the maintenance phase, "maintenance", involves extensive monitoring.


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