Will the industry finally do something about the single most critical safety problem facing it – automation-related degradation of airline pilot skills?
A huge amount of study has been carried out to understand the modern pilot operational skills deficit that has led to a spate of loss of control in-flight (LOC-I) fatal accidents over the last 15 years. However, so far no regulator has modified training requirements to address the need to restore what were recently considered core pilot skills.
The skill deficiency is recognised as not only the result of the lack of physical and mental practice induced by dependence on automation, but also the industry’s failure to develop best-practice in the use of ever more sophisticated flightpath management devices, and prepare pilots to handle an associated proliferation of flight management system (FMS) modes.
In the last year, manufacturers such as Airbus have fundamentally reviewed the way they provide training to customer airlines’ pilots converting to their latest products, which is a positive development. IATA, ICAO and the Royal Aeronautical Society have set up committees that have defined the problem, but are to yet deliver a universally accepted solution.
However, in November 2013 the US Federal Aviation Administration published a significant and long-awaited study entitled “the operational use of flight path management systems”, which has the potential to provide the global leadership that will bring action in this critical area.
It is doubtful, however, that the industry will see any of the action or results in 2014, unless individual airlines decide voluntarily to act on the report’s findings, which is what the FAA makes clear it would like to see. The airlines that will act are those that are already safe and do not have serious accidents anyway, so their participation will have no short-term effect on statistics – it will instead signal the beginnings of a change in culture.
In the study, the FAA’s working group cited several factors expected to impact future operations:
• Growth in the number of aircraft operations,
• Continuing changes in the demographics of the aviation workforce, including pilots and engineers
• Evolution in the knowledge and skills needed by pilots and air traffic controllers
• An extremely low commercial aviation accident rate, particularly in mature aviation economies, that challenges the cost/benefit case for regulatory changes
• Future airspace operations that exploit new technology and operational concepts for navigation, communication, surveillance and air traffic management
It is also worth listing the FAA’s identified “vulnerability” areas. Although fatal accidents have been making them obvious for years, this is the first authoritative organisation to derive a list based on hard operational evidence. These, according to the FAA, are the vulnerabilities:
• Prevention, recognition and recovery from upset conditions, stalls or unusual attitudes
• Appropriate manual handling after transition from automated control
• Inadequate energy management
• Inappropriate control inputs for the situation
• Crew co-ordination, especially relating to aircraft control
• Definition, development and retention of such skills
That is a list of pretty basic skills, but they have been allowed to decay. Next year will see a growing cultural awareness that something needs to be done, but the corrective actions will lag the intention, even in the USA.
Will Dassault unveil an ultra-long-range business jet this year?
Unlikely. The French airframer has enough on its plate bringing the recently launched, large-cabin segment-busting Falcon 5X to market in 2016.
Dassault is the only airframer that has its entire product line positioned at the top-half of the business jet segment. The new $26 million super-midsize Falcon 2000S is its entry-level product, and the $52 million, eight-year-old long-range 7X sits at its helm, with an order backlog of around 50.
Dassault has made no secret of its desire to enter the fledgling ultra-long-range business jet sector to compete with the popular Gulfstream G650 and Bombardier’s in-development Global 7000 and 8000 – scheduled for service entry in 2016 and 2017, respectively. The company has even hinted at a name for its new high-end product – the 9X.
It is, however, keeping product development details and time-scales tightly under wraps – a strategy it successfully adopted with the 5X – but is widely expected to use much of the same technology being introduced into the twinjet. This is likely to include a segment-beating range and cabin size.
For aviation analyst Brian Foley, Dassault’s next move is likely to be focused lower down in its business jet portfolio. “Determining which way they go next is a matter of following the money,” he says. “I would expect Dassault to first go downmarket to replace one or more previous Falcon models [2000, 900 for example], and eventually base all of their future models on the 5X wing and fuselage parameters to reduce costs.”
Can we expect a turn-around in the entry-level/light business jet market this year?
Yes. As long as the economy in the USA, which is historically the largest market for light cabin business jets, continues on its upward trajectory.
This sector has been in the doldrums since 2008, troubled a drought of traditional buyers – small companies, owner-flyers and high net-worth individuals – in its established markets.
Europe, the second-largest business aviation arena, remains stubbornly fragile, and buyer confidence within this region is unlikely to return for the foreseeable future. Elsewhere, however, the outlook is a little brighter. Prices of pre-owned jets – notably those less than five years old – are beginning to stabilise, and a clutch of new and enhanced products will enter service over the coming 12 months to whet the appetite of prospective purchasers and help revitalise orders in the depressed sector.
These include the light cabin Cessna M2, which bridges the gap between the entry-level Mustang and the CJ2+, the all-new HondaJet and the Bombardier Learjet 70 – a follow-on to the Learjet 40XR.
Its superlight Learjet 75 stablemate – itself a follow-on to the Learjet 45XR – entered service late last year.
Aviation consultant Brian Foley believes there is pent up demand for light jets as those buyers who typically purchase a new aircraft every five to seven years have been holding back as a result of economic uncertainty. These buyers could make their move soon, Foley argues. “As the [Federal bank] tapers, interest rates will likely go up. This could be an incentive for buyers who qualify to lock in low rates now,” he says.