As you all probably know by now, the two Northwest Airlines pilots who flew 150 miles past the Minneapolis International Airport have had their licenses revoked by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for
"... violations of a number of Federal Aviation Regulations. Those include failing to comply with air traffic control instructions and clearances and operating carelessly and recklessly."
The pilots claim that they had lost track of time while they were working on their laptops trying to figure out their flying schedules. Others believe they had fallen asleep and refused to admit it.
Northwest Airlines said using the laptops was in violation of company policy and it would seek to terminate their employment there. Many airlines also ban any distractions including reading material while a flight is in progress.
On top of the obvious, "What the hell were they thinking?" question, is another about the role of automation and its seductive powers. Accepting the pilots' story on the face of it - which I admit I am skeptical of - it does show a remarkable confidence in the aircraft's automated flight systems, to the point of nonchalantly ignoring them.
There was a video story on yesterday's ABC's World News called "Automation Addiction" that tried to address this issue. Essentially, the story says that many pilots find it hard to not let themselves become complacent or distracted because the aircraft systems are so capable and reliable.
"Commercial pilots are finding they have less to do during routine portions of flights as engines, navigation devices and automated flight-management systems have become more sophisticated and reliable.
"Equipment malfunctions occur so rarely that one of the biggest worries among safety experts is how to keep pilots engaged in monitoring flight instruments. Crews, meanwhile, look for ways to fill idle time on long flights, sometimes leading to spells of inattention."
The ABC News story said that on the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, pilots will get a written alert and then an alarm will sound if activity isn't detected in the cockpit after a certain amount of time.
Maybe what is needed is for airline pilots to be required to push a button every few minutes like many train engineers have to do to show that they are awake. Although has Homer Simpson showed in the episode, King-Size Homer, ways can be found around that as well.
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.