an editorial opinion

Combatting boredom in the cockpit

Can strategic use of distractions enhance situational awareness?

Perhaps having a portable electronic device like the iPad tablet can be used to advantage in the cockpit not only to handle airborne tasks more efficiently but also to keep the pilot awake and alert during the tedious enroute portion of the flight on long-range cruise at altitude.

The duration of the monitoring activity has a big impact on vigilance level. Longer periods provide a ripe environment for boredom. Unlike aviation, there's no universal "sterile cockpit" regulation in medicine. It's usually left to the hospital to determine acceptable practices.

Reading, Internet use, non-pertinent conversation, listening to music, and talking on the phone were observed during the 172 cases included in the study.

Responses to a random alarm were measured and the results showed no discernable loss of vigilance, even when distracted by other activities.

The researchers concluded that distracters during critical periods is professionally unacceptable but "mandating no distractions at any time is unrealistic and potentially detrimental."

Interspersing monotonous duty periods with short mental breaks

There's no doubt about the deleterious effects of multitasking during high workload situations. The research is clear on that topic. Advocating that a pilot interact with a personal electronic device while simultaneously performing a critical function would be irresponsible.

On the other hand, highly automated systems and ultra long-range flying are the harbingers of boredom. The answer may lie in interspersing long monotonous duty periods with short mental breaks. A few recent studies, including one conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on UAV pilots, considered the effects of boredom on vigilance. There's evidence that shows strategic use of other activities—including using electronic devices—can be beneficial.

Perception may be the driving policy on the issue of intentional distracters. Stories about the ills of texting and driving are constantly in the news. It looks bad to have your pilot or anesthesiologist surfing the Internet or reading the newspaper when lives are at stake—at least to those outside the profession.

Still, flawless monitoring for extended periods of time cannot be achieved by regulation or force. The aviation industry is often its own worst enemy when it comes to human performance. The decision to allow the use of personal electronic devices in Part 91 operations may ultimately be made by individual flight departments.

Perhaps there's a middle ground between an all out ban and free reign when it comes to using these devices.

Shannon Forrest is the program manager for human factors and CRM at FlightSafety Intl. He holds a degree in behavioral psychology and has accrued 9200 hrs as a freight, corporate and airline pilot.


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