What Is A Sterile Cockpit And Why Does It Matter?

The ‘Sterile Cockpit’ is an important concept in modern jet aircraft operations. You may think, especially in these days of heightened hygiene awareness, this is to do with a safe and medically sterile cockpit. It’s not, though. It is a safety measure introduced to ensure pilot concentration during the most important flight phases.

GOL Getty B737 MAX Cockpit
Pilots must be focused on flight activities during critical flight phases. Photo: Getty Images.

What is a ‘sterile cockpit’

Put simply, the ‘sterile cockpit’ rules forbid any unnecessary actions or conversations taking place in the aircraft cockpit during the most critical parts of the flights. This is usually defined as the taxi, take-off and approach and landing phases, and when operating under 10,000 feet (although each airline sets its own definition).

It is vital that at this time, the cockpit crew focus on flying the aircraft and not be distracted by each other, other crew, or passengers. While this may seem obvious and something that pilots should just control themselves, research into past accidents has shown that this not so easy. Regulated enforcement helps the situation.

Cockpit of Boeing 737
Pilots should be focused on flying the aircraft, with no excuse for chatter or distraction. Photo: Getty Images

What can’t be done in a sterile cockpit

Strict regulations for a sterile cockpit are defined by many regulatory bodies, including the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). In general, pilots should only be carrying out actions that are related to safely flying the aircraft.

Of course, regulations differ between countries, but usually include the following (they definitely do for the FAA):

  • Non-essential and social conversation between pilots is forbidden.
  • Activities such as eating meals, reading, etc., are prohibited.
  • No unnecessary distractions are allowed from the cabin crew.
  • General passenger announcements should not be made (such as general briefings or surrounding sights information).
  • Calls to the ground, or company, for non-essential reasons.
  • Completing unnecessary paperwork.
No chatter or posing for photos once the flight gets going. Photo: Getty Images

Introduced in 1981

The rules came about in 1981. It was introduced first by the FAA into its Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR Parts 121 and 135). The European Union followed with similar regulations (now defined in regulation 2015/140).

The point that regulations were not needed earlier is not entirely surprising. Flying, and cockpits, had changed a lot since the early days of aviation. More was being done by autopilot, and there was less need for manual navigation, for example. Go back earlier, and more noise in the cockpit would also have meant less chance for conversation.

The rules came about after investigations into several accidents showed that pilot distraction played a role. One of the most well known was Eastern Airlines Flight 212, which crashed on approach to Charlotte Douglas International airport in 1972. The investigation found that distraction in the final stages of the flight was the main factor (the pilots were chatting and trying to locate the nearby Carowinds Amusement Park).

What happened to Air Canada's 747s
The rules apply during taxi, take-off, and landing, usually below 10,000 feet but often higher.  Photo: Getty Images

Relevant to cabin crew as well as pilots

Sterile cockpit rules apply to both pilots and cabin crew, and all crew members are trained in the importance. It is important that cabin crew do not distract the pilots with food and drink orders, passenger administration, or other communication.

Of course, in the event of an emergency, they can, and should, communicate. Most airlines leave the regulations at this level. Interestingly, Japan Airlines (and possibly others) take them further and define the exact events under which the cockpit crew can be contacted.

Would you like to share any more details about sterile cockpits or other flight deck rules and procedures? Let us know in the comments.