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FAA Ban Hasn't Stopped Pilots From Snapping Selfies

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Our next story's about - you know what, wait a second. Let me just take a selfie first. Sound familiar?

You hear that phrase all the time from people addicted to posting pictures of themselves on social media. But while a digital self-portrait might be fine at home or on a night out with friends, it is not OK in the cockpit of a plane. In fact, the Federal Aviation Administration bans commercial airline pilots from using laptops, cell phones and other electronic devices while they're on duty, but that hasn't stopped hundreds of dreamy cloud photos from popping up on Instagram and other networks. David Yanofsky from the online publication Quartz has written about this and speaks to us now.

Welcome to the program, David.

DAVID YANOFSKY: Hi.

CORNISH: So we mentioned selfies, but that's not the only kind of photo you're seeing, right? I mean, how prevalent is this?

YANOFSKY: Well, you know, a couple months ago I was on Instagram and I was noticing photos of all types. You'd see photos from pilots that are of sunsets, that are of mountains, that are of cityscapes - beautiful, beautiful photographs. And up until yesterday, there was no NTSB report that ever cited photographs being taken in the cockpit as a reason for a crash.

CORNISH: So give us more on the specifics of the rules governing personal devices in the cockpit, right, the goal is what's called a quote-unquote "sterile cockpit."

YANOFSKY: Sure. So sterile cockpit is what applies during taxi take-off and landing. And during those times pilots aren't allowed to do any activity that is not directly related to the safe operation of the aircraft. That includes drinking a cup of coffee, that includes talking about the baseball game, that includes pointing out landmarks to the passengers in the back of the plane. But outside of critical phases of flight where a sterile cockpit is supposed to be observed, the FAA has a regulation that was enacted in April 2014 that prevents all commercial airline pilots from using any electronic device that has wireless capabilities during flight.

CORNISH: And do you get the sense that they took this action in response to this practice?

YANOFSKY: It was taken in direct action, in fact, to a couple incidents and accidents caused by pilots either texting or using - in this specific example - a laptop computer. This was a flight that missed its destination by like, 150 miles - just kept on flying.

CORNISH: And there are more serious consequences to distraction, right? Recently there was a fatal plane crash in Denver where they found a GoPro video camera among the wreckage and also talked about cell phone use by the pilot. Any sense that these rules might apply to non-commercial pilots soon?

YANOFSKY: It's hard to say. There's been no administrative action taken against any pilot for taking photographs in the cockpit, according to the FAA. I asked the FAA if they were going to publish any advisories and they said, nope, we're going to take no extra action.

CORNISH: What's been the response from pilots? Either ones you've contacted for this story, or just in response to the story itself, right, I mean they probably say they know best?

YANOFSKY: They definitely say they know best. They all say that they take the pictures, you know, when they're allowed to. There are certain exceptions to the FAA rules, one of which being if the camera is a film camera or doesn't have wireless capabilities. And many pilots have contacted me in a very angry fashion for pointing out the possibly illegal activity.

CORNISH: David, this idea came to you, as you said, because you saw these photos online and at first you thought they were pretty cool, but what do you think now when you step on a plane?

YANOFSKY: You know, I'm pretty comfortable stepping on a plane. I fly a lot. But the real concern with any industry is a culture of rule-breaking. And you don't want to have any profession looking at the laws that govern them and saying, oh, this set of them doesn't have to apply to me.

CORNISH: Well, David Yanofsky, thank you so much for talking with us.

YANOFSKY: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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