FindLaw columnist Eric Sinrod writes regularly in this section on legal developments surrounding technology and the internet.
In the wake of the airline pilots of infamous Northwest Flight 188 telling National Transportation Safety Board investigators that they were out of touch with air traffic controllers and airline dispatchers because they were working with new crew scheduling programs on their laptops, Congress now is considering a ban on the use of laptops and personal electronic devices in airline cockpits.
According to recent press reports, Senator Byron Dorgan, who is the Chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee, has stated that his staff intends to introduce a bill very soon. He reportedly expressed his surprise that the Federal Aviation Administration does not already go beyond barring the use of laptops and electronic devices below 10,000 feet during landings and take offs.
Senator Dorgan reportedly has expressed the view that his bill could be encompassed into a more expansive aviation bill pending in the Senate. He is reported to have stated that he does not anticipate opposition, and Senator Robert Menendez also is reported to have stated an intent to introduce his own legislation barring the use of laptops and electronic devices by pilots during flights.
The Flight 188 fiasco understandably has caused public concern. Indeed, the plane, transporting 144 passengers, was out of ground contact for 91 minutes. The government was so concerned that the military was preparing fighter jets for launch, and White House officials were put on alert, according to press reports. The plane went well past, Minneapolis, its destination, before a flight attendant reportedly advised the pilots of the situation.
Early the next morning, yours truly was sitting in a Northwest plane on the tarmac at the airport in San Francisco, about to take off to a Midwest destination, and learned about Flight 188 on CNN.com on my Blackberry. Needless to say, I did not have a warm, toasty feeling as we roared down the runway and up into the sky.
Northwest Airlines was acquired by Delta Air Lines last year. Delta reportedly has a policy in place the bans the use of personal laptops by pilots when flying, and the two pilots of Flight 188 have been suspended.
So, do we need legislation in this area? Perhaps. But one would think that common sense should be a worthy guide. Pilots flat-out should know on their own not to be so engrossed in any activity that takes them away from their primary mission - the safe and attentive transport of their passengers. A law is nice, but common sense and prudent judgment should have prevented this from happening even with no such law on the books.
If memory serves, a recent train accident has been blamed on the operator of the train allegedly having been engaged in text-messaging instead of paying proper attention to his duties. Was there a need for a law on that, or could common sense possibly have prevailed?
California now has a law that requires the use of ear-pieces and hands-free cell phone use while driving cars. Yet, even with that law in place, the Governor's wife was caught driving while holding a cell phone up to her ear.
If common sense is not as common as we would like, then we need greater education as to the risks and dangers of using electronic devices that divert attention from operating planes, trains and automobiles. Let's all get with the program!
Eric Sinrod is a partner in the San Francisco office of Duane Morris LLP (http://www.duanemorris.com) where he focuses on litigation matters of various types, including information technology and intellectual property disputes. His Web site is http://www.sinrodlaw.com and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To receive a weekly email link to Mr. Sinrod's columns, please send an email to him with Subscribe in the Subject line.
This column is prepared and published for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author's law firm or its individual partners.
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