Human factors (HF) is still the fashionable area for attack as airlines and aviation authorities worldwide battle to reduce accidents. This is not wholly unreasonable given that, somewhere along the line, human error remains the most common cause of accidents, with pilot error topping the list.

Yet we need to be clear about how the term "pilot error" is used. It can be an unfair judgement, as the pilot is inevitably the last person in a position to stop a fatal chain of events which may have been initiated on the manufacturer's drawing board, in the hangar, the tower, or the boardroom.

In such instances, the pilot has rightly been referred to as "the system's goalkeeper". In the long run, however, judging pilot error to be the primary cause in an accident which, like most crashes, has many causal factors, is a function of what industry and society at large expect a competent pilot to be able to handle.

Flightcrew failures vary. HF experts now put them in one of four different categories: incapacitation, "active errors", "passive errors" and "proficiency failures". As it stands, it is proficiency failures or "inappropriate handling of an aircraft or its systems" resulting from insufficient skill or lack of essential knowledge that is showing an alarming increase as a proportion of HF related crashes.

Poor training, lack of experience, lack of knowledge, or inherent lack of aptitude mean that the pilot did not perform to the standards which could reasonably have been expected under the circumstances. Put another way, the pilot, whether through the airline's fault or his/her own, should not have been operating as a professional pilot in that role.

Although evidence of this trend has been recorded in many accident reports over the last 10 years, the International Air Transport Association and Airclaims have now quantified the relentless advance of "pilot proficiency failure" as a proportion of the total pilot error accidents. In 1967, they say, it was virtually non- existent. By 1996, however, proficiency failure caused 58% of flightcrew human factors accidents, and this upward spiral continues. Even allowing for changes in accident reporting methods, technology and style over the period, that is far too big a figure to dismiss.

Traditionalists will attribute the change to the effect of advancing automation on pilots' stick and rudder skills, and will blame the pilots' systems knowledge deficit on the increasing complexity of modern aircraft. This might be a part of the truth, but it is a small part. The majority of the world's jet airliners still have "classic" cockpits.

The growth in number of latest generation airliners relative to the "classics" undoubtedly plays a part in the overall proportions of the error categories by bringing greater technical reliability. That, however, still does not explain the vast change.

In its much praised 1996 study The interfaces between flightcrews and modern flightdeck systems, the US Federal Aviation Administration was clearly worried about more than new technology interfaces when it said: "As training footprints shrink, or as more knowledge and skill items must be addressed, it becomes increasingly important that critical knowledge and skills are mastered-trying to squeeze more from a shrinking investment in human expertise will not help prevent the kind of incidents and accidents that are being labelled as human error." In a very restrained way, the FAA was saying that it is not enough to train just to meet the minima required by law.

If pilots have lost - or perhaps never had - adequate stick and rudder skills and have a knowledge deficit, yet can gain licences, earn type ratings and pass recurrent training tests, there is something dreadfully wrong with the licensing standards and their oversight. There is also a problem with the airlines' training, which has, in most cases, not altered since "classic" cockpits were the norm, and which either does not recognise (or ignores) lack of proficiency when it sees it.

It is up to the regulators, starting with the International Civil Aviation Organisation, to review pilot licensing standards minima, and then to ensure that the new standards are adopted and maintained.

Source: Flight International