Pilots Rely Too Much on Automation, Panel Says
Many Aviators Have Difficulty Manually Flying Planes, Study Commissioned by FAA Finds
By ANDY PASZTOR
Commercial airline pilots have become so dependent on automation that poor manual flying skills and failure to master the latest changes in cockpit technology pose the greatest hazards to passengers, an international panel of air-safety experts warns.
A soon-to-be-released study commissioned by the Federal Aviation Administration determined, among other things, that “pilots sometimes rely too much on automated systems and may be reluctant to intervene” or switch them off in unusual or risky circumstances, according to a draft reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
While over the decades automation played a big part in making flying today safer than ever in the U.S. and globally, the draft highlights some downsides. The study found that some pilots “lack sufficient or in-depth knowledge and skills” to properly control their plane’s trajectory, partly because “current training methods, training devices and the time allotted for training” may be inadequate to fully master advanced automated systems.
Among the accidents and certain categories of incidents that were examined, roughly two-thirds of the pilots either had difficulty manually flying planes or made mistakes using flight computers.
Relying too heavily on computer-driven flight decks-and problems that result when crews fail to properly keep up with changes in levels of automation-now pose the biggest threats to airliner safety world-wide, the study concluded. The results can range from degraded manual-flying skills to poor decision-making to possible erosion of confidence among some aviators when automation abruptly malfunctions or disconnects during an emergency.
The report is the first of its kind to meld historic data from accidents and incidents with real-time observations of working pilots, according to people familiar with the details. Instead of just focusing on training and cockpit design, the study takes a broader approach to consider pilot interactions with air-traffic controllers and other operational issues.
The observers found that in most instances, pilots were able to detect and correct automation slip-ups before they could cascade into more serious errors. But when pilots “have to actually hand fly” aircraft, according to one section of the narrative describing interviews with trainers, “they are accustomed to watching things happen…instead of being proactive.”
Pilots losing control of aircraft, because of poor situational awareness or inability to grasp what their instruments and automated systems are telling them, has been identified as the primary cause in a number of crashes globally in recent years. Pilot lapses and automation were implicated in the high-profile 2009 crash of an Air France AF.FR +1.04% Airbus A330 that stalled and went down in the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 228 aboard, just as they are suspected of causing last July’s crash of an Asiana Airlines Inc. 020560.SE +0.92% Boeing BA +0.73% 777 during a botched landing in San Francisco.
The 277-page report-written by a team of industry, labor, academic and government officials-details the hazards of excessive pilot dependence on increasingly automated and complex flight decks.
Scheduled for release by the FAA as early as this week, the findings already have prompted some agency action and are expected to be a catalyst for further moves to combat such fundamental safety gaps. The final version is basically unchanged from a September draft, according to people who have read both.
The FAA said it already has taken action on all 18 of the report’s recommendations, through new rules, guidance material and research. The agency cited “advances in manual flying skills [and] improved pilot certification standards,” adding that the report “validates those efforts” and the FAA would discuss the next steps on Thursday at a summit with industry leaders.
“It’s an industry consensus document” that’s based on data and “was so meticulously done,” according to John Cox, a former airline pilot and crash investigator, who now runs an industry consulting firm. “Those are the elements that make it so powerful.”
With the reliability of engines and flight controls continuing to improve, airline pilots spend the vast majority of their time programming and monitoring automated systems-typically relegating manual flying to barely a few minutes during takeoffs and right before touchdowns.
Overreliance on automation, however, has been recognized for years as an industrywide problem, with numerous earlier studies delving into the consequences.
But the latest effort stands out due to the wide-ranging collection of experts who participated. It also breaks new ground because the panel members sifted through large volumes of voluntary safety reports filed by pilots, along with additional data gathered by cockpit observers on more than 9,000 flights world-wide.
After seven years of deliberations and persistent industry arguments about which accidents and incidents ought to be considered, the document lays out some sweeping recommendations to prevent what critics have dubbed “automation addiction” in some cockpits.
The 34-member committee, for example, agreed that “pilots must be provided with opportunities to refine” manual flying skills, while receiving enhanced training in computer complexities and automation modes. In addition, the draft recommended training for rare but potentially catastrophic malfunctions “for which there is no specific procedure” or readily available checklist.
The panel also called on manufacturers to develop cockpit designs that are “more understandable from the flightcrew’s perspective” and specifically guard against technology failures resulting from integration of various onboard systems.
Kathy Abbott, a senior FAA scientist and one of the committee’s three co-chairs, declined to comment. In the past, she has said excessive reliance on computer aids means pilots “sometimes are not prepared to deal with non-routine situations,” especially when the message from airline management and trainers “is that automated systems can do the job better” than humans.
David McKenney, another co-chair and head of training programs and human-factors issues for the Air Line Pilots Association, the largest U.S. pilots union, said on Sunday that FAA rules prohibited him from commenting. But in the summer of 2012, he gave a mini-preview of some of the report’s conclusions. Mr. McKenney told an ALPA conference in Washington that instead of teaching pilots to punch in numbers and “simply how to interface with the automated systems,” airlines should train aviators to effectively manage flight paths using more-realistic scenarios and the element of surprise.
The FAA is considering releasing the study’s findings in conjunction with agency chief Michael Huerta’s scheduled meeting this week with industry leaders to discuss voluntary safety initiatives.
The agency earlier this month completed a major rewrite of pilot-training rules mirroring some of the report’s recommendations, including new requirements for teaching more-effective ways to monitor other pilots and flight instruments.
The expert panel was charged with updating an influential 1996 FAA study that examined the benefits and drawbacks of automation involving earlier, less-computerized generations of aircraft. Now, other groups and organizations are expected to conduct follow-up research based on the long-awaited findings.
According to the draft, “the definition of ‘normal’ pilot skills has changed over time” and “has actually increased to being a manager of systems.” Concerned about the hazards of cockpit “information overload,” the draft noted that several manufacturers told the panel that”today’s technology allows for too much information to be presented to the pilot.”