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FAA Wants No Pilot Distractions

Federal aviation regulators are prodding airlines today to take concrete steps that would ensure their pilots are not distracted by laptops, cellphones and extraneous conversations.

Spurred by a series of recent accidents and incidents in which pilots' attention was diverted from flying, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will issue a notice to carriers today calling for better internal rules and training on the issue. The notice was obtained by USA TODAY.

Cockpit distractions and lack of professionalism have become top aviation safety issues in the past year. Two Northwest Airlines pilots flew 150 miles past their destination in October because they were working on laptops. A crash Feb. 12, 2009, near Buffalo, which killed 50 people, was triggered in part because pilots were chatting and not paying attention to flight conditions, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded.

"There is no room for distraction when your job is to get people safely to their destinations," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says in a statement to be issued today. "The traveling public expects professional pilots to focus on flying and on safety."

The FAA action follows recommendations by the NTSB to become more aggressive in attacking the problem.

In February, the NTSB classified the FAA's response to the issue as "unacceptable" because of delays in acting. The NTSB made the first of several calls for tighter cockpit discipline in 2007.

The NTSB will hold a three-day public forum on improving professionalism among pilots and air-traffic controllers starting May 18.

Airlines agree that cockpit distractions need to be addressed and already have begun examining their policies and procedures, says David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association.

In its notice today, the FAA emphasizes that carriers should take specific steps to eliminate cockpit distractions. The FAA calls on carriers to set more specific rules and improve training. The notice to airlines is voluntary, but failure to follow suggestions can lead to more inspections.

The explosion in the use of cellphones and other devices has had a troubling impact on aviation, the NTSB has found. The co-pilot of the flight that crashed near Buffalo had sent text messages while the plane taxied toward the runway in Newark before the flight, investigators found.

The messages played no role in the accident, but investigators said they were part of a disturbing trend.

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