In the bad old days it wasn't uncommon to go through an intra-cockpit voice recorder after, say, a runway overun in heavy fog and rain, and hear pilots discussing dinner plans or flirting with flight attendants on final approach, just moments before the "Oh $#&%" entry on the transcript.
Such incidents for U.S. carriers were supposed to be over decades ago after the FAA drafted the sterile cockpit rules that govern airline operations during critical phases of flight.
But increasingly we're learning that all phases of flight are critical, including the phase of flight where you notice it's time to land at your destination.
We know of a few transoceanic airline captains who pioneered electronic cockpit distraction as far back as the 80s, toting offline-reader-equipped laptops to read and reply to messages on AVSIG during long overwater flights.
No one flew off the horizon so far as we know, and we attribute that happy fact to the judgment of said Great Captains, and maybe a little bit to the horrendous laptop battery life of that era. But mostly to good judgment.
After the crew of a Northwest Airlines flight overflew its own hub city of Minneapolis because they were playing checkers, networked Call of Duty (delicious irony, eh?) or watching YouTube videos of bug-eyed lemers (with so many internet rumors, including these brand new ones, it's hard to keep track) the FAA is revisiting cockpit distraction issues.
The agency recently issued Information for Operators asking airlines to establish a "top-down" safety culture in training and daily operation that discourages pilots from engaging in distractions, electronic or not, during flight.
Not very toothy. Another no-duh policy for the internet-in-your-pocket age that recognizes that there are long stints at cruise, and that even with a complete ban on personal electronics in the cockpit, somebody will pack playing cards.
Back on the ground, approximately every three minutes some municipality passes a "no texting while driving" law. Such laws are pretty much unenforceable prior to an accident triggering a cell phone record subpoena. But while it goes without saying that texting while driving is dangerous (there, I said it) somebody has to say something official about it.
The FAA's latest guidance is surely issued in this spirit, minus the rulemaking.
But in an age where we decry the nanny state, make no mistake: we are the nanny state. We proclaim our ability to exercise common sense, yet won't suffer the reliable percentage of the population who won't ... especially when public safety is involved.
Eventually the "There Oughta be a Law" posse will come calling on distracted high-altitude drivers too ... approximately the day after we ask our nanny state to put cockpit video in airliners.