Records from a NASA safety watchdog program have found automation-related problems appearing among safety alerts, so we turned to David McKenney, a 30-year veteran pilot who flies Boeing 767 aircraft for United Airlines to see what more can be learned from studying the systems pilots rely on to safely fly their planes.
McKenney also serves on a flight deck automation study group comprised of Federal Aviation Administration, aviation industry and research representatives.
The committee, whose report is due out this spring, has studied thousands of normal flights and hundreds of incidents and accidents, in an effort to prevent future accidents linked to automated flight systems.
The report is expected to warn of a reduction in pilots' manual flying skills and manual flying errors, perhaps linked to an over-reliance on automation systems. The group also found that pilots sometimes have insufficient knowledge of the systems. That knowledge gap was a factor in nearly half the accidents studied.
McKenney, commenting as a representative of the Airline Pilots Association, a labor union representing more than 50,000 pilots at 38 U.S. and Canadian airlines, provides insight into why there's a need to evaluate flight automation systems.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
ROBERT BENINCASA: Capt. McKenney, why study flight automation now, 20 years or so into the wide deployment of these technologies?
CAPT. DAVID MCKENNEY: We started this project about five years ago, because the industry, including the Airline Pilots Association and the FAA management, wanted an update on the 1996 FAA Human Factors Team report on the interfaces between flight crews and modern flight deck systems. Many changes have been made as a result of that report. However, I think the incident and accident reports that we have now still suggest that the pilots and crews continue to have problems interfacing with the flight path management systems on the aircraft.
BENINCASA: Can you tell me what you mean by changes made since then?
MCKENNEY: Some of the changes that I know of were in the certification area with the airplanes and design. However, those new rules are only for new aircraft and not the existing aircraft. And they have made changes to how we train, and the emphasis we place on certain things, such as mode confusion. But even though we've trained for that and the pilots have become more used to using what we call the FMS, the flight management systems, they're still making errors.
BENINCASA: So, since the report back in the 1990s, regulators have improved the way they look at automation in the certification process. Is that fair to say?
MCKENNEY: Yes, there's a current [rule proposal] out now that deals with the errors that pilots make when they're using the equipment. That manufacturer [of flight management systems] has to make sure that they take into account human error, and the errors that people can make using the equipment are reduced. That has not been so in the past. Pilots had to memorize a lot of steps.
BENINCASA: Is the study yielding results that you would have expected?
McKENNEY: I would say mostly yes. One of the items that I think we found is that new technologies in the flight decks still need to be developed and implemented from a crew-centered design perspective — fully integrated into the flight deck design, with the pilot as the center of that. In other words, what can I do to make the pilot do his job better, versus trying to create something where it flies the airplane and the pilot's there to save the day. We need to have the pilot as the center because what we're finding is that the pilot is being taken out of the loop. Then, when the aircraft has trouble, the pilot doesn't know where the aircraft is or what it's doing sometimes. And then they have to help recover the airplane.
BENINCASA: What's one of the things the study confirmed?
MCKENNEY: Training is one of them. With the pressures on industry, a lot of the training, some of it has been reduced or it's been shortened. And, we haven't been training for the right things. We're still training on items that have come from 40, 50 years ago, that don't really match today's aircraft. We have not made new programs in some cases to actually train and check some of the skills that are required on today's modern airplanes, such as flight path management.
BENINCASA: Do you expect that the group will make any recommendations about FAA rule making?
McKENNEY: Yes, we expect to recommend updates to [FAA policies]. The biggest thing that we want to emphasize is how safe aviation actually is. In all these areas where the pilots are part of the system, we mitigate the risk. We have about ten million flights a year in the United States, and these all land completely safe because of the contribution of professional pilots and others in the system. We hear about the accidents, but last year we had no fatalities in our [commercial] operations. People don't hear about that. What they hear about is if we have one airplane that crashes.