Often the crew is busiest when things appear to be the quietest.

Passengers in the cockpit

Tempted to stroll up to the cockpit for a chat with the pilots and the view from the front office? Depending on what's going on up there, that may not be such a great idea. While pilots love to talk about what they love, passenger access to the cockpit comes with some restrictions for safety reasons.

"If it's a two-pilot aircraft, a passenger should never be allowed to sit in one of those seats," said Bob Conyers, director of safety for Global Aerospace. "Passengers sometimes want to sit there in flight to see what it's like, but it is against Federal Aviation Regulations. The FARs require pilots to remain in their seats except when duty requires they be elsewhere or when nature calls."

Conyers did say there are advantages to having a passenger up front occasionally. "If it's the owner or someone in a position to support the flight department, having them spend some time in a jump seat so they know more about the operation can be beneficial," he commented. "But their potential for being a distraction is a downside. They must understand the [so-called] sterile-cockpit rule."

That FAA rule calls for pilots to refrain from nonessential activities during critical flight phases, when "the only conversation allowed is directly related to the safe conduct of flight," said Doug Carr, vice president of safety, security and regulations for the National Business Aviation Association.

"The crew should be completely focused on operating the aircraft and looking for conflicting traffic from engine start through taxi, takeoff and climb to at least 10,000 feet," he added. "The same is true from descent through 10,000 feet all the way to engine shutdown. Passengers often don't realize it, but operating on the ground at an airport requires a lot of diligence." Indeed, the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board consider one of today's top safety challenges to be runway incursion: an aircraft accidentally crossing an active runway or taxiway, putting it in danger of collision with another aircraft.

"We go one step beyond [prohibiting] nonessential talking," said Dwayne McMurry, director of flight operations for Smyrna, Tenn.-based Corporate Flight Management. "We stipulate no eating, drinking or reading material not directly related to aircraft operation. We also require our crews to closely monitor radio traffic other than that which pertains to their flight. You can't focus on that sort of thing if people are trying to talk to you."

From a passenger's perspective, it may not always be obvious when it is inappropriate to visit the cockpit. Often the crew is busiest when things appear to be the quietest. That's why Corporate Flight Management briefs passengers about remaining in their seats when the seat-belt sign is illuminated. "We turn it on during the sterile-cockpit environment," McMurry noted. "When it's off, passengers know they can interact with the crew if necessary."

When the seat-belt light is on-particularly when a flight is taking off, landing or taxiing-it's another matter. Then your best bet is to relax in the cabin and let your pilots focus on what they need to do to keep your flight safe.