As the aviation industry has been developing along the years, technological improvements are among those factors, which have allowed airlines to expand around the globe without significant safety deterioration. Moreover, The ICAO statistical data indicates that during the last few years the overall global aviation accident rate was the lowest since the organization began tracking it in 2006. However, today, when many new pilots have been “cultivated” in and surrounded by the digital realm, can the technology be really trusted and fully relied on?
Automation has been a major contributor to the operation of airlines. With such avionics makers as Honeywell designing cockpit aids to help airline pilots better manage the take-off and landing phase of their flights (as Boeing statistical data shows 16% of accidents occurring in the take-off and initial climb area), the contribution of new technologies to the safety of air travel can be neither ignored nor overstated. However, some industry representatives raise their concerns stating that airline pilots’ basic skills are becoming weaker due to over-reliance or even dependence on automation systems, designed for flight assistance.
“There is nothing inherently risky about using automation, especially since in most situations it reduces the workload. But in some cases, when time is critical, and the crew cannot reprogram a flight-management computer fast enough, pilots are forced to turn off automated systems, grab the controls and take action on their own. And that’s where one’s experience is the only thing that counts,” says Skaiste Knyzaite, the CEO of AviationCV.com “Thus, with a rapid growth of the international airline industry during the last two decades, notably in Asia and the Middle East, the “addiction” to automation can become particularly troubling.”
According to S. Knyzaite, experienced expatriate training pilots who are or have worked in Asia and the Middle East share the experience regarding the lack of basic skills and preoccupation with button pushing within local pilots. They may be perfectly capable to enter numbers into the flight-management computer but if something unexpected happens during the flight, crews may not have the time to push and flick all the controls required for the automation to make critical changes to the aircraft’s trajectory.
Of course, some of the countries in these regions still lack robust general aviation and conditions in which pilots can perform hundreds of hand-flown take-offs and departures, arrivals and landings before gaining sufficient experience to graduate into the cockpit of an Airbus or a Boeing. Nevertheless, technology-related issues are not something that is of relevance only to the developing countries, as advanced automation can lull any crew into becoming mere systems monitors.
“We are on the edge of a new world with the new generation of digital airplanes, operated and maintained by a new generation of men and women. Nevertheless, it is still early to forget about the basics, which can be described in one word, - experience,” shares her thoughts Skaiste Knyzaite, the CEO of AviationCV.com. “Therefore, while new technologies may offer the opportunity to train pilots faster, the operators must not sacrifice safety for the speed of growth. Especially, when there are wide possibilities to hire experienced personnel even when there’s pilot shortage in the market.”
Of course, aircraft manufacturers are constantly working on solutions to simplify the complex and often confusing interfaces that hinder rather than help pilots. For example, Rockwell Collins is working on a project to reduce the number of federated automatic flight control modes added to the flight deck. Nevertheless, since automation has not yet reached the point where it can handle all contingencies, humans must be prepared to hand-fly an aircraft at any point.