Airline passengers are used to being told by flight attendants that it's time to put away their laptop computers. Now, the pilots of American (AMR), Delta (DAL) and other airlines may hear a similar message from Congress, which is considering banning the use of laptops and other electronic devices in the cockpit.
The use of laptops is being blamed for an Oct. 21 incident in which a Northwest plane flew 150 miles beyond its Minneapolis destination before the pilots became aware that they had overshot their intended landing site.
In response to that incident, members of the Senate and House are actively considering legislation which would make it illegal for pilots to have any consumer electronics device in active use while they are flying a commercial plane. In a statement, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), chairman of the aviation subcommittee, told the press: "We now understand from this flight at least that this can happen and there ought to be a more clear understanding by everyone in the cockpit that there is a national standard that would prohibit this and that they need to take it seriously."
One would think that airlines would have been aware of the practice of pilots using laptops in flight, and would have banned it long ago. That doesn't seem like a lot to ask. But, as usual, it takes a near-catastrophe to focus attention on a dangerous situation, at which point an industry loses the ability to regulate itself and must instead submit to the standards set by politicians.
Douglas A. McIntyre is an editor at 24/7 Wall St.