Electronic Distractions

The recent NTSB finding that an EMS helicopter that crashed in 2011 was caused at least in part by a pilot texting during critical phases of flight has put renewed emphasis on the dangers of distraction in the cockpit, particularly from the personal use of electronic devices, such as cellphones, tablets and laptop computers. Four people were killed in that accident.

Although Congress and the FAA have decided to focus rulemaking on eliminating distractions caused by these personal electronic devices in airline flight decks, the problem of these distractions is just as significant in the hangar and anywhere maintenance is performed, whether performed by an airline or repair station employee or a general aviation mechanic.

While I have not heard of an accident specifically traced to a maintenance technician’s use of a cellphone or other electronic device, it seems to be just a question of time before that happens. We already know that distractions are a leading cause of mistakes in aircraft maintenance.

Based on a number of maintenance-related accidents in the 1980s and early 1990s, Transport Canada (the Canadian version of the FAA) created a list of the most common sources of maintenance errors, the so-called Dirty Dozen. I’m sure most of you are familiar with them. In that list, distraction ranks as number four, after lack of communication, complacency and lack of knowledge. Distraction is defined by the FAA on its human factors web site as: one’s attention is drawn away; mental or emotional confusion or disturbance occurs. When working among many people, with frequent work interruptions, or when coping with stress, it is easy to become distracted.

When this list of maintenance human factors errors was developed, cell phones were not yet common in the general population as they are today. It would have been the rare mechanic to have a cell phone in his or her pocket in those days. Today, it’s probably fair to say that it would be rare to find a mechanic without a personal cell phone. Unfortunately, those cell phones are now a frequent cause of distraction while maintenance is being performed. Even though many companies prohibit cell phone use while mechanics are working, my observation is that enforcement of those policies is spotty at best.

Even at major airlines that prohibit cell phone use on the job, mechanics can be seen talking or texting while performing maintenance. I was recently visiting the maintenance department of a major airline and observed a mechanic working on an engine pause, reach in his pocket, answer his cell and then continue on with his engine work.

It’s unlikely that the FAA will have a rule any time soon prohibiting personal electronic devices from intruding on maintenance workers. (The proposed rule prohibiting the use of personal electronics on the flight decks of airlines is still in the proposal stages.) But mechanics and repairmen shouldn’t wait for such a rule; they need to turn off their cell phones before doing any maintenance work on an aircraft. The risk of fatal distraction is just too great.

John Goglia has 40+ years experience in the aviation industry. He was the first NTSB member to hold an FAA aircraft mechanic’s certificate. He can be reached at gogliaj@yahoo.com.