Expert: Wayward Flight Shows Risks Of Automation

The recent instance of a Northwest airliner flying past its destination because of the pilots' preoccupation with their computers raises new questions about how airline crews communicate — and the risks of automation.

As aviation consultant Michael Goldfarb tells NPR's Renee Montagne, it's still very safe to fly. The problem, he says, is that pilots are now more susceptible to boredom and fatigue.

"There's so much automation in the cockpit that, literally, an aircraft taking off from Los Angeles and landing in New York can have very little attendance by the crew," says Goldfarb, a former chief of staff at the Federal Aviation Administration.

"That automation has created a problem of boredom in the cockpit," he says.

Goldfarb compares the pilots' case to the dangerous phenomenon of drivers and train conductors using their cell phones to break up the monotony.

"It's 'driven to distraction,' " he says.

The Northwest flight landed safely in Minneapolis. But Goldfarb says that in the 90 minutes the pilots were distracted, they were very likely ignoring messages from traffic control towers and other pilots.

"The No. 1 rule of pilot training is to expect the unexpected," he says. "That's what you train against."

After the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings, the FAA mandated new cockpit doors on commercial airliners. Cabin crews no longer have access to the cockpit. The Northwest pilots were alerted that they had missed the airport when the crew knocked on the door to ask when they might land.

The aviation industry might be realizing that pilots may have too much automation at their disposal, Goldfarb says.

"Some airlines and the manufacturers are considering reintroducing manual controls, so that your skills don't atrophy," he says. "If you don't use those skills, they do begin to atrophy.

"And that boredom can be very, very difficult and distracting for the crew."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And that Northwest flight to Minneapolis that overshot the city that Adam just spoke about has got a lot of people wondering what does go on in the cockpit. So we put in a call to aviation consultant Michael Goldfarb. He's a former chief of staff at the Federal Aviation Administration.

Good morning.

Mr. MICHAEL GOLDFARB (President, MGA; Former Chief of Staff, Federal Aviation Administration): Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, for us passengers, the pilot says hello. He might alert us to turbulence during the flight, but we tend to think that the pilot and the copilot are flying the plane. What exactly does that mean, flying the plane?

Mr. GOLDFARB: Well, it doesn't mean what it meant 30 years ago. There's so much automation in the cockpit that, literally, an aircraft taking off from Los Angeles and landing in New York can have very little attendance by the crew. That automation has created a problem of boredom in the cockpit.

MONTAGNE: And in the case of these Northwest pilots, they have said that they were using their personal laptop computers. We've heard of distracted driving. Would this be a case of distracted flying?

Mr. GOLDFARB: Yeah, it's driven to distraction. I think we're seeing it. We've seen it on the road with texting. We've seen it in trains with the conductor doing instant messaging, and this is really the first of its kind that we've identified in the cockpit. Think about it for a moment, Renee. How can, for 90 minutes, two pilots separately be on their laptops? Now remember what's happening in the cockpit. You have lights flashing. You have voices of other pilots talking to other controllers. Lots of information is continuously being transmitted. All that was either ignored or unheard. So�

MONTAGNE: Well, could this be more - just as a general thing, again - can this level, if you're an experienced pilot, could you just tune it out?

Mr. GOLDFARB: You don't want to. The number one rule of pilot training is to expect the unexpected. You know, there's a saying in aviation, it's that last landing of the day, runway in sight, clear skies that worries me the most. That's what you train against. That's what Sully Sullenberger trained against in the Hudson, and that's what experienced pilots - and both of these pilots had significant number of flight hours. They know that they're on stage, so to speak, at those critical parts of flight.

MONTAGNE: Well, there are also other characters, if you will, in this drama. The flight attendant eventually called in to ask, you know, the pilots when they - when were they landing? Do flight attendants generally communicate with the cockpit? I know I was surprised to find that they couldn't actually get through the door themselves.

Mr. GOLDFARB: Well, the used to, before 9/11, be able to get into the cockpit. It's now locked. So that's an interesting point about whether or not - that's always a wise idea. So the flight attendants, who are very aware of every element of flight, they know exactly when they should be above the city. They know when to put the food trays away. They know when to lock up the cabin, prepare for landing. When they don't hear that from the flight crew, that raises suspicion, but they had no way other than knocking on the door or using the intercom to contact that crew.

MONTAGNE: Lots of questions still to be answered, but for you, how does this all add up in terms of how safe it is to fly?

Mr. GOLDFARB: Well, it's very safe to fly. It's always been a relative concept, but flying remains the safest way to travel. There are some pressing problems, and one reason that they focused on perhaps that the crew had fell asleep is fatigue. Now when an aircraft used to have a cockpit crew of three, you know, the flight engineer would always been the backup, and if one of the crew dozed off, you'd have two other eyes and ears on the controls. Now in a two person cockpit, you don't. So fatigue is a very big safety issue, especially with the automation there. Some airlines and the manufacturers are considering reintroducing manual controls so that your skills don't atrophy. If you don't use those skills, they do begin to atrophy, and that boredom can be very, very difficult and distractive for the crew.

MONTAGNE: Michael Goldfarb is a former chief of staff at the Federal Aviation Administration and president of MGA, an aviation consulting firm. Thank you very much.

Mr. GOLDFARB: My pleasure.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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