Who Are You Flying With On Monday Morning?

Who are you flying with on Monday morning, and who supplies their planes?  Why am I asking?  Well I’ve just re-read Nicholas Carr’s “The Glass Cage” where he examines the impact that automation has on us, and in particular how it has caused our skills to atrophy over time.

We are not only automating the routine tasks but the more complex and specialised ones too. Carr cites a Harvard Business School study carried out by Professor James Bright which showed that automation had reduced the lot of factory workers to carrying out drab and mundane work devoid of skill thereby reducing them into being merely “pusher[s] of buttons.” This is what British Aviation researcher Matthew Ebbatson calls “skill fade.” Ebbatson was concerned with the effect that delegating more and more cockpit tasks to computers was actually having on a pilot’s actual flying abilities and skills. One of his studies found that “flying skills decay quite rapidly towards the fringes of ‘tolerable’ performance without relatively frequent practice.”

Two aircraft accidents in early 2009 were attributed to human error or “skill fade” as a result of the unscheduled disengagement from autopilot to manual. These were Continental Connection Flight 3407 from Newark to Buffalo which killed all 49 people on board, and Air France Flight 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on June 1st 2009 killing all 228 passengers and crew.

Due to autopilot pilots now spend more time pushing buttons and monitoring screens instead of actually flying the plane manually. It looks as though the joke that pilots are now glorified bus drivers is more than a little unfair…on the bus drivers. In fact a pilot today spends no more than three minutes holding the actual controls on a typical passenger flight. As a result pilots are making mistakes when the autopilot unexpectedly disengages thereby placing the pilot in a role with which he is now unfamiliar. “We’re forgetting how to fly” were the words of Rory Kay a former top safety official of the Airline Pilots Association. In January 2013 according to Carr, the Federal Aviation Authority became “so concerned…it issued a ‘safety alert’ to airlines urging them to get their pilots to do more manual flying. An overreliance on automation, the agency warned, could put planes and passengers at risk.”

Carr discusses the differing approaches of both Airbus and Boeing to design.  Airbus has adopted a technology-centred approach which means that the software, not the pilot, has the ultimate control, whereas Boeing has pursued a human-centred approach.  With a human-centred approach the pilot has the ultimate authority and the software is not allowed to over-ride him – even in an emergency situation.

In the Airbus cockpit the pilots use game-like joysticks which provide no tactile feedback to the pilot meaning that the pilots are reduced to being computer operators as opposed to aviators.  In the Boeing cockpit the pilots operate traditional flying “yokes” which “are programmed to provide resistance and other tactile cues that simulate the feel of the movements of the plane’s ailerons, elevators, and other control surfaces.  Research has found that tactile, or haptic, feedback is significantly more effective than visual cues alone in alerting pilots to important changes in a plane’s orientation and operation.” 

According to Carr some aviation experts blame the Air France Flight 447 disaster on the Airbus cockpit design.   The Airbus cockpit is designed whereby the joysticks of both the pilot and co-pilot do not operate in sync, and therefore it’s hard for the co-pilot to pick up on a mistake that the pilot may have made.  The “yokes” of both the pilot and co-pilot both operate in sync – i.e. if the pilot’s “yoke” moves, then so does the co-pilots.  Both pilots also have a clear view of the other pilot’s “yoke.”  The voice-recorder transcript of Flight 447 revealed that “the whole time the pilot controlling the plane, Pierre-Cédric Bonin, was pulling back on his sidestick , his co-pilot was oblivous to Bonin’s fateful mistake.”

Had Robert been aware of the mistake early on they may have managed to stop the plane from entering its death plunge.  Former Airbus top designer, Bernard Ziegler, expressed his doubts about the company’s design philosophy when he said:

“Sometimes I wonder if we made an air-plane that is too easy to fly…because in a difficult air-plane the crews may stay more alert.”

Both Airbus and Boeing have largely similar flight safety records, but all the same, the next time I board a flight to London – a flight I’ve made on countless occasions – I may pay a little more attention than usual to the make of the plane that’s carrying me.


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