Automation addiction risks eroding pilot skills

A high-level aviation safety panel warns that today’s pilots are at risk of developing ‘automation addiction’.

In a new report that represents years of effort by the US Flight Deck Automation Working Group, industry experts conclude that modern flight path management systems do indeed create challenges that can lead to mistakes and passengers being put in danger.

The industry group said the problem stems from increasing complexity in both systems and in operations, degradation of pilot knowledge and skills, and how the different parts of the aviation system are increasingly dependent on one another.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said it has already taken action on the group’s 18 recommendations contained in the long-awaited report including rulemaking, guidance and research studies that will improve pilot management of aircraft flight path management.

It said the group’s latest report validates the work the US aviation agency has been doing and more narrowly focuses the agency on the specific steps that can be taken to further respond to the recommendations, prompting FAA Administrator Michael Huerta to call for industry support to further address identified risks.

The panel analysed worldwide data from accidents, incidents, normal operations, interviews with manufacturers, operators, and training organisations in an effort to identify the way flying has evolved since 1996.

It found that – as long suspected – pilots sometimes rely too much on automated systems and may be reluctant to intervene with mistakes continuing to be made while in autoflight mode and through FMS programming as well as through a reliance on information automation.

“Air traffic controllers often do not have sufficient knowledge of how airspace procedure design and clearances affect flight deck operations and often lack knowledge of aircraft capabilities,” the report notes. “As a result, the airspace procedures and clearances are sometimes not compatible with the aircraft operating in the airspace system.”

“Communication and coordination between pilots and air traffic services has vulnerabilities that can affect flight path management. Amended clearances from air traffic generally are issued with good intentions but can lead to misunderstandings, increased flightcrew workload, and potential pilot errors when using flight path management systems,” it adds. “Even properly issued clearances, if timed such that the flightcrew cannot reasonably execute the instruction in the time available, can result in similar difficulties and undesired aircraft states.”

Findings of the US Flight Deck Automation Working Group’s latest report:

Recommendation 1 – Manual operations.
Develop and implement standards and guidance for maintaining and improving knowledge and skills for manual flight operations that include the following:

  • Pilots must be provided with opportunities to refine this knowledge and practice the skills
  • Training and checking should directly address this topic
  • Operator policies for flight path management must support and be consistent with the training and practice in the aircraft type

This should be integrated with related recommendations.

Actions: The FAA says the FAA recently finalized a Pilot Training Rule and a Pilot Certification and Qualification Rule that require balanced automation management and manual flying skills training and checking for all air carrier pilots. In addition, the FAA published Safety Alert for Operators (FAFO) 13002 manual Flight Operation to encourage operators to promote manual flight operations when appropriate.

Recommendation 2–Autoflight mode awareness.
For the near term, emphasize and encourage improved training and flightcrew procedures to improve autoflight mode awareness as part of an emphasis on flight path management. For the longer term, equipment design should emphasize reducing the number and complexity of autoflight modes from the pilot’s perspective and improve the feedback to pilots (e.g., on mode transitions) and ensure that the design of the mode logic assists with pilots’ intuitive interpretation of failures and reversions.

Actions: The FAA says the FAA made two changes to Part 25 of the regulations establishing standards for the design of autopilots, autothrottles/autothrust systems, and flight directors. These changes set performance requirements, failure protection requirements, and standards for alerting flight crews to system changes.

Recommendation 3 – Information automation.
Develop or enhance guidance for documentation, training, and procedures for information automation systems, e.g., Electronic Flight Bags (EFB), moving map displays, performance management calculations, multi-function display) or functions:

  • Describe what is meant by Information Automation and what systems, equipment are included
  • Define terms associated with Information Automation
  • Develop guidelines for the content and structure of policy statements in Flight Operations Policy Manuals for Information Automation
  • Develop operational procedures to avoid information errors.

Actions: The FAA says FAA Advisory Circular (AC) 120-76B, Guidelines for Certification, Airworthiness, and Operational use of EFBs establishes acceptable methods and best practices to build and use EFB types of information automation.

Recommendation 4 – FMS documentation, design, training, and procedures for operational use.
In the near term, develop or enhance guidance for flightcrew documentation, training and procedures for FMS use. For the longer term, research should be conducted on new interface designs and technologies that support pilot tasks, strategies and processes, as opposed to machine or technology-driven strategies.

Actions: The FAA says the FAA issued AC 90-105, Approval Guidance for RNP Operations and Barometric Vertical Guidance in the U.S. National Airspace System and Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) and AC 120-71A, Standard Operating Procedures for Flight Deck Crewmembers. Both will provide best practices for written instructions and procedures for pilots in operations and training. The Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) Certification Training Program (CPT), required by the Pilot Certification and Qualification Rule, provides automation training standards for pilots.

Recommendation 5 – Verification and validation for equipment design.
Research should be conducted and implemented on processes and methods of verification and validation (includes validation of requirements) during the design of highly integrated systems that specifically address failures and failure effects resulting from the integration.

Actions: The FAA says the FAA developed AC 20-174, Development of Civil Aircraft Systems, to describe how to design highly integrated systems with attention to understanding what happens to the overall system if individual components fail.

Recommendation 6–Flight Deck System Design.
Flightcrew training should be enhanced to include characteristics of the flight deck system design that are needed for operation of the aircraft (such as system relationships and interdependencies during normal and non-normal modes of operation for flight path management for existing aircraft fleets). For new systems, manufacturers should design flight deck systems such that the underlying system should be more understandable from the flightcrew’s perspective by including human-centered design processes.

Actions: The FAA says the FAA made two changes to Part 25 of the FAA’s regulations establishing standards for the design of autopilots, autothrottles/autothrust systems, and flight directors. These changes set performance requirements, failure protection requirements, and standards for alerting flight crews to system changes. The Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) Certification Training Program (CPT), required by the Pilot Certification and Qualification Rule, provides automation training standards for pilots.

Recommendation 7 – Guidance for Flightcrew Procedures for Malfunctions.
Develop guidance for flightcrew strategies and procedures to address malfunctions for which there is no specific checklist.

Actions: The FAA says research is under way to develop procedures to train and more effectively handle unanticipated failures in complex systems.

Recommendation 8 – Design of Standard Operating Procedures (SOP).
For the near term, update guidance (e.g., Advisory Circular (AC) 120-71A) and develop recommended practices for design of SOPs based on manufacturer procedures, continuous feedback from operational experience, and lessons learned. This guidance should be updated to reflect operational experience and research findings on a recurring basis. For the longer term, conduct research to understand and address when and why SOPs are not followed. The activities should place particular emphasis on monitoring, cross verification, and appropriate allocation of tasks between pilot flying and pilot monitoring.

Actions: The FAA says AC 120-71A, Standard Operating Procedures for Flight Deck Crewmembers, is being revised to enhance the design of standard operating procedures.

Recommendation 9–Operational policy for Flight Path Management.
Operators should have a clearly stated flight path management policy as follows:

  • Highlight and stress that the responsibility for flight path management remains with the pilots at all times.
  • Focus the policy on flight path management, rather than automated systems
  • Identify appropriate opportunities for manual flight operations
  • Recognize the importance of automated systems as a tool (among other tools) to support the flight path management task, and provide policy for their operational uses
  • Distinguish between guidance and control
  • Encourage flightcrews to tell Air Traffic “unable” when appropriate
  • Adapt to the operator’s needs and operations
  • Develop consistent terminology for automated systems, guidance, control, and other terms that form the foundation of the policy
  • Develop guidance for development of policies for managing information automation

Actions: The FAA says the FAA’s SAFO 13002 on Manual Flight Operations stresses the importance of maintaining manual flying skills and encourages operators to promote manual flight operations when appropriate.

Recommendation 10–Pilot-air traffic communication and coordination. |
Discourage the use of regional or country-specific terminology in favor of international harmonization. Implement harmonized phraseology for amendments to clearances and for re-clearing onto procedures with vertical profiles and speed restrictions. Implement education and familiarization outreach for air traffic personnel to better understand flight deck systems and operational issues associated with amended clearances. In operations, minimize the threats associated with runway assignment changes through a combination of better planning and understanding of the risks involved.

Actions: The FAA says FAA experts are engaged to ensure pilot-controller understanding through standard phraseology – for example, phraseology changes which clarify instruction for climbing and descending during departure and arrival procedures.

Recommendation 11–Airspace procedure design.
Continue the transition to PBN operations and the drawdown of those conventional procedures with limited utility. As part of that transition, address procedure design complexity (from the perspective of operational use) and mixed equipage issues. Standardize PBN procedure design and implementation processes with inclusion of best practices and lessons learned. This includes arrivals, departures, and approaches.

Actions: The FAA says long-standing and ongoing collaboration between the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization and Aviation Safety provides continuous evaluation of air traffic procedures and the development of new and more robust arrival, departure and approach procedures.

Recommendation 12 – Flight deck design process and resources.
Ensure that human factors expertise is integrated into the aircraft design process in partnership with other disciplines with the goal of contributing to a human-centered design. To assist in this process, an accessible repository of references should be developed that identifies the core documents relevant to “recommended practices” for human-centered flight deck and equipment design. Early in the design process, designers should document their assumptions on how the equipment should be used in operation.

Actions:  The FAA says a new change to Part 25 of the FAA’s regulations establishes improved standards for human centered aircraft design.

Recommendation 13–Pilot training and qualification.
Revise initial and recurrent pilot training, qualification requirements (as necessary) and revise guidance for the development and maintenance of improved knowledge and skills for successful flight path management. As part of the implementation of this recommendation, improve the oversight of air carriers and Part 142 Training Centers.

Actions: The FAA says the Pilot Training Rule and the Pilot Certification and Qualification rule requires focus on the knowledge and skills necessary for successful flight path management.

Recommendation 14–Instructor/evaluator training and qualification.
Review and revise, as necessary, guidance and oversight for initial and recurrent training and qualification for instructor/evaluator. This review should focus on the development and maintenance of skills and knowledge to enable instructors and evaluators to successfully teach and evaluate airplane flight path management, including use of automated systems.

Actions: The FAA says FAA and industry work groups have identified best practices for improving instructor and evaluator performance. The FAA is actively promoting the voluntary adoption of those best practices.

Recommendation 15–Regulatory process and guidance for aircraft certification and operational approvals.Improve the regulatory processes and guidance for aircraft certification and operational approvals, especially for new technologies and operations, to improve consideration of human performance and operational consequences in the following areas:

  • Changes to existing flight deck design through Supplemental Type Certificates (STCs) Technical Standard Orders (TSOs), or field approvals
  • Introduction of new operations or changes to operations, to include implications for training, flightcrew procedures, and operational risk management
  • Actions: The new part 25 rule will help improve processes. Multiple efforts to streamline policy and procedure are ongoing.

Recommendation 16–Flight deck equipment standardization.
Develop standards to encourage consistency for flightcrew interfaces for new technologies and operations as they are introduced into the airspace system. Standards should be developed which establish consistency of system functionality (from an airspace operations perspective) for those operations deemed necessary for current and future airspace operations.

Actions: The FAA says standards for system functionality are being developed for new technologies and operation under the NextGen program. These standards are developing through industry consultation such as RTCA.

Recommendation 17–Monitor implementation of new operations and new technologies.
Encourage the identification, gathering, and use of appropriate data to monitor implementation of new operations, technologies, procedures, etc., based on the specified objectives for safety and effectiveness. Particular attention should be paid to human performance aspects, both positive and negative.

Actions: The FAA says current diverse types and large volumes of data are shared between the FAA and industry through Aviation Safety Action (ASAP) and Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA) programs. These and other programs will be mined to monitor the implementation of new operations and technologies.

Recommendation 18 – Methods and recommended practices for data collection, analysis, and event investigation that address human performance and underlying factors.
Develop methods and recommended practices for improved data collection, operational data analysis and accident and incident investigations. The methods and recommended practices should address the following:

  • When reviewing and analyzing operational, accident and incident data, or any other narrative-intensive dataset, ensure that the team has adequate expertise in the appropriate domains to understand the reports and apply appropriate judgment and ensure that the time allotted for the activity is adequate
  • Explicitly address underlying factors in the investigation, including factors such as organizational culture, regulatory policies, and others
  • Provide guidance on strengths and limitations of different data sources and different methodologies and taxonomies
  • Encourage the use of multiple, dissimilar data sources to provide better coverage of events
  • Encourage the wide sharing of safety related information and analysis results, especially lessons learned and risk mitigations

Actions: The FAA says industry is contributing data through an FAA database called the Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing (ASIAS) system for early identification and the deeper study of safety issues. Safety information is also shared with government and industry twice a year during Infoshare meetings.

The report was submitted to the FAA on September 9, 2013.

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