US regulators to probe industry on automation

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US FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt says he will bring together airlines and human factors experts in April or possibly sooner to discuss the consequences of advanced automation as it applies to pilots, controllers and mechanics.

The basic question that will be addressed at the meeting, says Babbitt, is: "Have we automated to the point where the human is out of the loop?" The FAA chief was speaking to ATI and Flightglobal in Houston on 12 January after a kick-off event for initial operations of the FAA's automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast services (ADS-B) in the Gulf of Mexico.

Babbitt, a former airline pilot and instructor who continues to fly light aircraft on occasion after becoming FAA Administrator in June 2009, says he initiated the effort in part after hearing from "several airlines" that they were changing operational procedures to call for "a little more hand flying".

Pilots typically engage an aircraft's autopilot shortly after takeoff, returning to hand-flying mode shortly before landing. FAA rules require that all aircraft flying above 29,000ft (8,845m) in reduced vertical separation minima (RVSM) airspace be operated on autopilot for safety reasons due to the limited vertical separation between aircraft, but carriers have more leeway at lower altitudes.

Autopilot use is largely determined by efficiency measures in those areas, a reality that would tend to signal increased automation and autopilot use as the FAA moves toward 4d navigation, where an aircraft must pass certain waypoints at a relatively precise time.

The role of automation and training has been in the safety spotlight after several recent high profile accidents in 2009, including the stall-related crash of a Colgan Airways Q400 in Buffalo in February, the crash of a FedEx MD-11F during an otherwise normal landing at Tokyo Narita in March and the unexplained loss of an Air France A330 over the Atlantic in June.

Flightglobal recently reported that during its Crew Management Conference in early December that experts are debating whether a seeming deterioration of pilot skills is the symptom of long term effects of operating highly automated aircraft.

Babbitt says the impact of increased automation could also affect air traffic controllers and maintenance workers. "I've asked FAA's human factors experts to look at it," he says. "We have to make sure a human is the ultimate decision maker."

A key goal of the upcoming meeting, he notes, is to get carriers to share what they've learned on the topic. "If a carrier has developed a good procedure, I want to tell others about it," says Babbitt.