Dangers of Automation in the Airline Industry

One of the biggest changes in the aviation industry is the introduction of increasingly powerful automation systems in the cockpit. Computer-operated aircraft have capabilities that airplanes of the past never had, such as the ability to take off, fly, and land in zero-visibility conditions with very little need for pilot intervention. Modern-day pilots in airplanes with fully automated cockpits might spend only a few minutes of each flight flying the plane by hand.

Technology is not always perfect, however, and many pilots lack training in how to respond in emergency situations that arise when their planes’ automated systems fail. Several plane crashes in recent years have occurred due to failures in the planes’ automated systems, coupled with the pilots’ inability to intervene both quickly and adequately to prevent an accident. Thus, while the increase of cockpit automation has brought some benefits, including greater reliability and efficiency to the airline industry, these advantages have been offset by unique risks and hazards that the industry has been, in some instances, unable to adequately address.

Recent Jetliner Crashes Illuminate an Urgent Need for Extensive Pilot Training

Arguably the most high-profile plane crash in 2018 was a brand-new Boeing 737 MAX 8 jetliner flying for Lion Air that crashed into deep waters off the coast of Jakarta, only 13 minutes into what was supposed to be a short flight to a Sumatran island. All 189 passengers and crew members were killed in the crash. The plane had experienced technical trouble during a flight the previous day, but had managed to land safely in Jakarta. Investigators later learned that the following day’s fatal crash occurred due to a sensor failure in the plane’s automated stall-prevention system. The pilot and copilot received conflicting information from the faulty sensor, and though they attempted to counteract the automated system, they were unable to do so. The plane ultimately took a steep and tragic dive into the ocean.

Less than five months later, in March 2019, a second Boeing 737 MAX 8 jetliner flown by Ethiopian Airlines crashed, also just after takeoff, killing all 157 people aboard. Preliminary black box data suggested one major cause of the crash was very similar to that of the Indonesian accident: faulty sensors connected to the computerized anti-stalling system which provided conflicting and erroneous information to the pilots, who were then unable to sort out and correct the problem in time.

The second MAX 8 crash prompted aviation officials to ground these aircraft in an effort to investigate whether software updates or manufacturing changes might be needed across the board for the MAX 8 planes. These particular aircraft aren’t the only ones that have experienced problems related to their automated systems, however. Numerous flights in recent years have crashed due to malfunctions in computerized flight control systems.

Crashes Caused by Inadequate Pilot Training Combined with Automation Problems

In 2013, an Asiana Airlines transpacific flight crashed during its final descent into San Francisco. Three people aboard were killed and 187 were injured, including four flight crew members who were thrown from the plane onto the runway when the plane’s tail section broke off. After aviation officials investigated the crash, they cited problems with the aircraft’s automated flight control system as being a major factor in the crash, along with inadequacies in the pilot’s training and experience.

Lack of adequate pilot training was also found to be a contributing factor in the two Max 8 crashes. In all of these accidents, more extensive pilot training, specifically in the area of hands-on flight experience, could have helped the pilots circumvent the automated systems, respond appropriately when the emergency situation occurred, and avoid the crash.

Far from being unique to just one or two airlines or aircraft manufacturers, technological failures and deficiencies in pilot training are critical issues in the field of aviation. Increased travel around the globe has led in recent years to a worldwide pilot shortage, which in turn has led to fewer military-trained pilots and more inadequately trained commercial pilots winding up in cockpits. One silver lining related to the more recent MAX 8 crashes that occurred was that they prompted an ongoing investigation across the airline industry into the hazards of automated cockpit systems and ways to equip pilots to better respond when emergency situations arise.

This response was appropriate and necessary. While those two particular accidents may together point to a problem specific to Boeing’s manufacturing of its MAX 8 aircraft, the overall situation—recent advances leading not just to a bigger role for technology in flight, but also to increased hazards for pilots—is not unique to any single aircraft manufacturer.

Advances in Automated Flight Systems an Ongoing Problem for Decades

Nor is this complex situation new. Early aviation automation dates all the way back to 1912, when the first successful autopilot was invented by Lawrence Sperry. By the 1920s and 1930s, Sperry’s gyroscopic autopilots were widely in use. It wasn’t until the 1970s that more modern aviation experts began using digital technology to improve aircraft automation and reduce aircraft accidents due to human error.

Modern cockpit automation systems have been in effect and improving steadily for the past several decades, and accident rates have undeniably declined through the years with the rise in computerized systems. Still, the problem of pilot over-reliance on automation is also undeniable. American Airlines used a pilot training video back in 1997 that highlighted the issue, and a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) study in 2011 found that many pilots were overly dependent on automated systems while flying, and lacked hands-on flight experience.

To this day, even those pilots with extensive training and flight experience can be lulled into depending on their airplanes’ computerized systems, and thus may not realize an emergency situation has developed until it is too late. Officials across the aviation industry agree that modern pilot training has pilots spending too much time learning computerized automated systems and not time enough manually flying airplanes, with the result of pilots who are more systems operators than traditional pilots. Many simply aren’t well-trained in hands-on flying techniques, especially those techniques that come into play when automated systems fail during a flight.

Lack of Oversight Also Contributes to Crashes

Tragic crashes resulting from technology failures, like the Lion Air crash in 2018 and the Ethiopian Airlines crash in 2019, have shined a spotlight on the critical need for enhanced pilot training, among other improvements. Many airline officials and regulators agree that modern pilots need more time practicing manually flying aircraft in order to become more familiar with working with the plane’s controls. The goal is to keep pilots from becoming over-reliant on automated systems and to enable flight crews to react with speed and confidence in emergency situations.

The only way to achieve these goals is through better, more extensive pilot and crew training, with more hands-on flying time for pilots. Only through logging plenty of hours actively and manually flying airplanes can pilots develop the quick reflexes and critical decision-making skills needed when rare but real emergency situations arise and they are required to take control of the aircraft when its automated system fails. But greater regulation and oversight are also needed in order to ensure that this extensive pilot training occurs.

A 2016 report issued by the Department of Transportation found that the FAA had not done enough to ensure that airlines were providing pilots with suitable training in either monitoring their planes in autopilot mode or using their hands-on flying skills, including proper responses in emergency situations. The FAA was also found to be lacking in gathering adequate data regarding how much time per flight pilots spent manually flying planes.

Aviation experts have pointed to training methods such as flight simulators as a preferred method for training today’s pilots in hands-on flight techniques, including techniques that would come into play in situations when the aircraft’s computerized flight control systems malfunctioned. Many aviation experts, including lots of major airlines, also point to the need for a reduction in the use of automation during flights and encourage pilots to fly manually as much as possible.

Some pilots and aviation experts argue that the benefits of increased flight automation well outweigh the risks, and there is some truth to this statement. After all, crash statistics have improved overall throughout the years as steady advances have been made in airplane automation. Still, the need is undeniable for better, more extensive pilot training in hands-on flight, as well as for better and more extensive oversight by the FAA and other agencies to ensure that airlines perform at peak responsibility for their pilots, aircraft, and passengers. When lives are at stake, improvements must continue to be made to make flying safe for everyone.

Moving Forward After a Plane Crash

If your life has been affected by an airplane crash that occurred either because of a malfunctioning automated flight control system or because the pilot was inadequately trained to manage such a malfunction, you may be seeking answers regarding your rights. The aviation attorneys at Slack Davis Sanger have unparalleled knowledge of aviation laws and aviation regulation and oversight, and we have combined decades of experience in successfully handling personal injury claims following an airplane crash. Our team of compassionate and tenacious advocates work tirelessly to obtain justice for our clients. Contact us for a free consultation to discuss your personal situation.