The Sterile Cockpit Rule refers to a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulation that was developed in 1981 that states that any member of a flight crew should not perform any other duties, or exchange in irrelevant conversations during the critical phases of flight such as take-off, taxiing on the runway, flight deviations, landings, and any operations below 10,000 feet.
It has been proven that if the attention of flight crew members is diverted from their task, the number of accidents or technical errors increases. It becomes a very serious issue when a crew member gets distracted during the portion of the flight where the flight is in a critical phase.
The Sterile Cockpit Rule was created after a review of various accidents concluded that a number of those accidents could be traced to fact that the flight crews may have been distracted from their major duties in the cockpit in one way or another, mostly due to the fact that they were engaged in activities that were not necessary at a very critical moment during the flight.
Many accidents were analyzed and according to their review, there were many critical flight events where pilots did not follow the Sterile Cockpit Rule that directly affected the safety of the flight. Some of those incidents were course or altitude deviations, runway transgressions, take-offs or landings without clearance, and near mid-air collisions due to distractions as well as inattention from the pilots. So, in order to minimize such accidents, the FAA imposed the Sterile Cockpit Rule.
Application of the Sterile Cockpit Rule
The Sterile Cockpit Rule is fully applicable to Federal Aviation Regulation Part 121 which is otherwise called Scheduled Air Carriers and Part 135 which is known as Commercial Operators. Crew members operating under those regulations must adhere to the Sterile Cockpit Rule or risk consequences from the FAA.
The rule is generally not applicable to non-commercial general aviation flights, however, many pilots have admitted that such incidents could have been prevented with the help of the Sterile Cockpit Rule. Therefore, it has become a common practice for all pilots and even for those who operate Part 91 or non-commercial general aviation to follow the Sterile Cockpit Rule.
Some of the specific duty restrictions of the flights’ crew members during a critical phase of the flight includes the following,
- Any flight crew member shall not perform or get involved with any other duties during the critical stage of the flight except the duties that are relevant to bring the flight back to a safe state.
- All crewmembers and pilot in command may not engage in or permit any activity that can distract any other crewmember from effectively performing their duties at the point when the aircraft is in a critical stage and that would endanger the safety of the aircraft.
- Irregular activities such as friendly conversations, snacking or eating meals, reading unrelated publications, and making announcements within the cockpit are strictly prohibited during critical moments of the flight.
It is not specifically stated in the Sterile Cockpit Rule what the role of flight attendants will be if there is an emergency when the aircraft is below 10,000 feet. Should they break the silence by contacting the cockpit or should they follow the Sterile Cockpit Rule? The FAA has mentioned that any hesitancy of the flight attendants informing the pilots in such situations could be more dangerous than the distraction caused by the violations of Sterile Cockpit Rule.
In order to remove confusion, some airlines have adopted examples of certain situations when the cockpit should be contacted by the flight attendants below 10,000 feet or in other possible critical flight moments. Those situations include:
- Outbreak of fire
- Detection of smoke in the cabin
- Any technical error or abnormality in the aircraft during landing or take-off
- Existence of abnormal vibration or noise
- Presence of any fuel or observation of any kind of leakage.