Autopilot woes

This first appeared as a Comment in the 11 February issue of Flight International

Aviators and regulators have worried for years that increasingly sophisticated cockpit automation ­systems are degrading pilots’ cognitive and manual ­flying skills. But there has been no action – additional training, for example – for fear of the cost.
This cost factor is the reason why – even if they ­believed it to be necessary – individual national ­aviation authorities (NAAs) in a global industry could not afford to impose higher training standards unilaterally on their home airlines, for fear of making them commercially uncompetitive.
After all, the argument runs, despite the fact that pilot failures cause the majority of fatal airline ­accidents, the accident rate is lower than ever – so maybe doing nothing is good enough.
The only way of confronting this clear need for a changed approach to pilot training is to use hard data to establish that pilot skills are truly – not just anecdotally – being downgraded, and that automation is the proven cause of the phenomenon. The next need was to establish, again using data, precisely which skills were affected and how this lack of competency showed itself in the cockpit. Finally, it was necessary to ­demonstrate that training would be an effective ­solution, and precisely what changes in existing ­training regimes would achieve this.
Fortunately, all that has now been done. Starting five years ago the US Federal Aviation Administration, working with expert committees drawn from industry and academia, has collected and analysed the data and produced its findings and recommendations. Ironically, the FAA is prevented from mandating a new training regime because US airline safety is so good that the cost-benefit analysis does not make the case for change.
But the industry can act voluntarily – and this report spotlights the need for action. Of course, regulators and airlines outside the USA could decide to carry on as if nothing has happened, but the FAA is a role model for authorities worldwide – as is the European Aviation Safety Agency. EASA is watching carefully, and the ­transatlantic relationship between the two is formal, but fairly close and mutually respectful. The International Civil Aviation Organisation will, in due course, take account of resulting changes in training best practice in its standards and recommended practices.
Cleverly, the FAA has thrown the ball to industry – regulators, airlines and manufacturers have no choice but to run with it.

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