When I first heard about those two pilots who recently overshot the Minneapolis airport by over 100 miles, I was stunned. However, when they said the reason they weren’t paying attention to flying was because they were looking at one of their personal laptops, I just nodded my head, knowingly. We’ve all seen people who get so absorbed in their computers or other electronic devices that they lose track of time and everything else. I’ve done it now and then. Of course, when I do it, I don’t have 144 passengers sitting behind me.
For an hour and 18 minutes, the pilots didn’t respond to their radio. Air traffic controllers had no explanation for what was going on. Federal counterterrorism agencies were so alarmed by the plane’s erratic actions that they put fighter jets on alert. The pilots claimed they were on the computer for the entire hour and 18 minutes going over some new airline scheduling software. Come on. If these pilots are the kind of people who are on their laptops every chance they get and they were on it for an hour and 18 minutes, do you really think they were just checking out some dull airline software the whole time?
During those 78 minutes, if they got an e-mail, don’t you think they read it? Maybe they checked on how their stocks were doing. Perhaps they were playing “Tiger Woods’ PGA Tour” or “Street Fighter IV.” For all we know, they were looking at porn while the plane flew at 37,000 feet.
I’m sure they felt that they could be on the computer and still pay attention to flying the airplane. And why not? How hard can it be to fly an Airbus A-320?
We don’t see something as serious as this every day, but we all know this mentality. It’s the rationalization used by people who talk on their phones while they drive: “I can concentrate on the road while I talk.” It’s what people say when they’re being electronically rude: “Don’t worry, I can pay attention to what you’re saying and send an e-mail at the same time.” It’s the same thought process used by all those people who text while they’re making love. Well, I’m sure somebody does that.
The point is that, without realizing it, people get completely engrossed in their computers, Blackberrys, and iPhones. The New York Times recently reported a Western Washington University experiment that demonstrated this.
They surveyed some people walking around a campus square while a unicyclist in a clown suit pedaled around the same square. After stopping the walkers, the researchers asked, “Did you see anything unusual?” One third of the people who were listening to music while they walked and nearly 60 percent of the people who were walking with a friend mentioned the clown. But of those people who were walking while they talked on their cell phones, only 8 percent remembered the clown. Eight percent! How can they drive or pay attention at a meeting while they’re on their phones if they can’t spot a clown right in front of them? On a unicycle!
The researchers refer to this phenomenon as “inattentional blindness.” Maybe that’s what the pilots had. Maybe that’s what your kid has as she talks on her cell phone and you’re waving your arms in front of her. Maybe that’s what that guy in the elevator has as he ignores everyone else and shouts into that ridiculous thing on his ear.
So I guess some people aren’t as good at multitasking as they think they are. They should stick to doing one thing at a time — especially if they’re flying a plane. There’s just one thing about those pilots that I can’t get out of my mind: I hope they weren’t using that computer to play “Flight Simulator.”
Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from “Sesame Street” to “Family Ties” to “Home Improvement” to “Frasier.” He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his website at lloydgarver.com and his podcasts on iTunes.