US National Transportation Safety Board Looks At Aviation Automation and Complacency

Is It a Real Problem?

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US National Transportation Safety Board Looks At Aviation Automation and Complacency

This week, the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is conducting a three-day forum this week titled "Professionalism in Aviation: Ensuring Excellence in Pilot and Air Traffic Controller Performance" focused on "the importance of developing and reinforcing professionalism for aviation safety and the identification of best practices."

The NTSB forum is an outgrowth of a number of recent aviation incidents that have made the NTSB as well as many in the aviation community nervous. Quoting from an April NTSB press release announcing the event,

"NTSB's investigations into the midair collision over the Hudson River last August, the crash of Colgan Air flight 3407 in February 2009, and the October 2009 Northwest pilots' overflight of their intended airport provided the impetus for this forum because all of them clearly demonstrated the hazards to aviation safety when pilots and air traffic controllers depart from standard operating procedures and established best practices."

The full agenda can be found here.

One issue that will be looked into at the forum is that of aviation automation - both in the cockpit and in the control tower - and whether automation has or may be leading to operator complacency. There was a story in yesterday's New York Times specifically addressing this issue.

While there seems to be general agreement that automation can potentially cause problems in the cockpit, there is less agreement about exactly how.

The Times quotes Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator J. Randolph Babbitt, an experienced pilot and safety advocate, as saying that automation wasn't the problem in the case of the Northwest pilots who overflew their destination while engrossed on their laptops.

"It doesn't have anything to do with automation ... Any opportunity for distraction doesn't have any business in the cockpit. Your focus should be on flying the airplane."

In April, the FAA issued guidance to operators reminding them about the dangers of cockpit distractions and reminding them of their requirements to control those distractions.

Administrator J. Randolph Babbitt did indicate in the Times article that the FAA "was more concerned that pilots, confused by the complex automation, were losing track of what the airplane was doing."

Losing track of what a transportation system is doing, especially in the case of an emergency, has increasingly become a concern not only in the aviation industry but other transportation industries as well.

I have written and blogged on this issue, which refers to the idea of the "automation paradox", several times. You can find a partial list of what I have written here.

Getting back to the issue of complacency, the Times quotes engineering Professor William B. Rouse of  Georgia Institute of Technology and IEEE Fellow as saying,

 "Complacency is an issue, but designing the interaction between human and technical so the human has the right level of judgment when you need them is a design task in itself... When the person has no role in the task, there’s a much greater risk of complacency."

Probably the best quote from the Times story is from a captain at Continental Airlines, who said, "No light comes on to tell you that you're being complacent."

Maybe in the future there will be. I know the issue of distracted drivers is being actively studied with automation to alert distracted drivers being investigated.

Does anyone have information on automation to help distracted pilots?

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