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Do pilots listen to music in their headsets

Do airline pilots listen to music whilst flying?

Perhaps because they are prominently pictured with headphones on, pilots frequently get asked if they can listen to the music while they are flying.

Many websites, forums, and Quora answers quote a widely shared view that because airline regulations don’t prohibit music in the cockpit, commercial airline pilots are listening to music whilst flying.

This is a common misconception. In all my years of professional flying, I am yet to come across any commercial airline that endorses their pilots listening to music in the cockpit!

However, there are some situations where listening to music might even have a benefit. As a result, for private pilots in general aviation, listening to music whilst flying is becoming more and more common. There are now many audio input options and sophisticated set-ups available.

So, why don’t airline pilots listen to music in the cockpit? And can private pilots listen to music safely?

Why commercial airline pilots don’t listen to music whilst flying

There are some pretty major differences between flying commercially, and as a private pilot. Listening to music is one of them!

  • Managing workload. Commercial pilots fly routinely fly in some of the busiest airspace in the world. At busy airports, pilots need the ability to monitor other aircraft around them, without any musical distractions! Commercial pilots will not only listen out for their own callsigns, but also keep one ear on the radios for the instructions for all aircraft. This helps to build up a picture of what the aircraft nearby will do, avoiding potential collisions and reducing mistakes.
  • Incompatible headsets. It may sound strange; however, modern light aircraft can have significantly newer technology than is available in commercial aircraft! While bluetooth and audio technology have moved rapidly, commercial operations incorporate new technology at slower rates. Due to the rigorous testing and standardisation, most commercial aircraft don’t have headsets capable of feeding in personal audio, and many airlines prohibit pilots using their own, newer headsets.
  • Company procedures. Working for a commercial operation, pilots are not only guided by the general aviation regulations — like the FAA, CAA, or EASA — but it is a legal requirement to follow the regulations of each individual airline. Often known as an Operations Manual, individual airlines detail exactly how their pilots are expected to operate. These rules typically cover — and prohibit — the use of personal mobile phones, cameras, and music in the cockpit.
Pilot radio communications sets can be used to dial in music stations

Do pilots ever break the rules?

Yes some pilots do, using the radio highlighted below. And this is how they do it…

For aircraft that don’t have the ability to play audio through their headsets, or airlines that prohibit pilots listening to music — there is one way that pilots occasionally break the rules. And It’s probably not what you expect!

Once a primary instruments for navigation, non-directional beacons (NDBs) are radio aids pilots can use to locate their positions. Radio beacons broadcast their position, but also their identification names — usually three letters — in morse code so that pilots know they are tuned into the correct signal.

However, some radio stations also use these frequencies. By dialling in the frequencies of radio stations instead of the navigational beacons, it is possible in some locations to listen to radios! This is not often done, however for long flights during major sporting events, pilots will occasionally flick onto a radio station to quickly hear the score!

Do private pilots listen to music?

Yes. As technology has advanced, private pilots have an impressive range of headphones available to them.

These range from wired or wireless, traditional passive, and newer active noise-cancelling headsets, capable of incorporating personal audio alongside aviation radios.

Female private pilot wearing a headset

The latest headsets — like the Bose A20 — have inbuilt features to enable pilots to listen to personal music whilst flying, safely. Known as Audio Prioritisation, the pilot’s music is immediately interrupted whenever there is an air traffic control call, or pilot alert, ensuring that the music doesn’t interfere with operating safely.

In many parts of the world, private pilots can fly for hours without encountering other aircraft. In some instances, it has even been argued that listening to music can keep pilots more alert!

Summary

So, do commercial airline pilots listen to music whilst they are in the cockpit? The answer is no. While many airline pilots could bring an iPod, or use their own headset capable of listening to music, most airlines prohibit it. It’s frowned upon in the commercial pilot community, as unprofessional, and an unnecessary distraction.

Airlines also take flight safety extremely seriously. Any form of minor incident or report of pilots distracted whilst listening to music is something that could potentially cost them their jobs. Would you risk losing your job over listening to music?

However, times are changing, and maybe in the future airlines will take a different stance. If you’ve ever worked at a commercial airline that allows their pilots to listen to music in the cockpit — I’d love to hear from you!

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Josh

Flyingbynumber’s Resident Airline Captain — Josh

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