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FAA bans pilots' personal use of electronic devices in cockpit

New rule prohibits non-essential use of laptops, cell phones, and other electronic devices to prevent crew member distraction during flights.

A new rule prohibits airline pilots from personal use of electronic devices in the cockpit
Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images

As the Federal Aviation Administration eases prohibitions against passenger use of portable electronic devices, it's restricting airline pilots' personal use of devices in the cockpit.

New regulations, announced Tuesday, prohibit pilots from personal use of laptops, cell phones, and other electronic devices while on duty in the cockpit. The rules (PDF), which go into effect in two months, augments the FAA's 1981 "sterile cockpit" rule, which requires that pilots refrain from non-essential and distracting activities during certain phases of the flight.

The FAA said the new rule "codifies existing FAA policies and procedures" and was consistent with a mandate issued by Congress to prevent distraction to members of the flight crew during critical phases of a flight.

"This rule will ensure that certain non-essential activities do not contribute to the challenge of task management on the flight deck and do not contribute to a loss of situational awareness due to attention to non-essential activities," the FAA said in the regulation's text.

The agency noted that the dangers posed by pilots' use of electronic devices in the cockpit were highlighted in 2009 when a Northwest Airlines flight overshot its intended airport by 150 miles while the pilots were using their laptops. The pair didn't realize their mistake until contacted by a flight attendant, according to a National Transportation Safety Board report.

While the FAA is prohibiting personal use of electronic devices, pilots will still be able to use laptops, iPads, or other devices that are needed for operating an airplane. American Airlines became the first commercial carrier to give tablets to pilots for work purposes in 2012 when it substituted iPads for its heavy paper-based flight manuals. Microsoft's Surface 2 won FAA approval for similar use on Tuesday.