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Secondary domain



The nature of the functionalities of automation has been continuously evolving. Beyond early, simple autopilots, over the years, automation has taken on new roles. Greater expectations for performance of the air transportation system such as flight path accuracy, fuel consumption, and system throughput motivated this evolution. Increasing levels and sophistication of automation are needed in order to maintain an acceptable workload for flight crew in future environments requiring precision navigation and execution of time-based clearances. In NextGen, greater expectations for more efficient management of air traffic will also drive increasingly advanced automation in ground and satellite systems. This raises new questions on the roles and responsibilities of pilots, air traffic controllers, and possibly airline operations centers.

A major concern is the increasing reliance by flight crew, air traffic controllers, maintenance and dispatch on the proper functioning and graceful degradation of the performance of advanced automation. Flight crews and air traffic controllers rely on automation for proper management of off-nominal and failure scenarios.

Potential hazard

  1. Flight crew spending excessive time in a monitoring role potentially compromising their ability to intervene when necessary
  2. Failure of the flight crew to remain aware of automation mode and aircraft energy state
  3. Unfamiliar modes of aircraft automation may result in a perfectly normal flying aircraft suddenly taking on characteristics that the pilot has seldom or never previously encountered
  4. Latent flaws in the displays or primary flight control system may go undetected, because not enough human-in-the-loop testing is performed
  5. Pilots may not be adequately trained to understand the philosophy of the automation design when the functionality is being automatically degraded in particular situations for reasons know only to the software
  6. Inadequate software verification
  7. NextGen/SESAR hazard condition: Surface automation updates departure schedule based on time taxi clearance issued via data communications. Associated human performance hazard: Local Controller places aircraft in position to allow arrival aircraft to clear runway. Controller delays issue of takeoff clearance due to automation schedule disagreement.
  8. NextGen/SESAR hazard condition: Local Controller issues takeoff clearance by voice when automation schedule advises controller of appropriate departure time. Associated human performance hazard: Controller issues a voice amendment, but does not enter amendment into ground surface automation.
  9. NextGen/SESAR hazard condition: Weather or restricted airspace results in congestion that controllers must develop amendments for en route aircraft. Associated human performance hazards: Controller successfully develops route amendments, but fails to issue en route amendment to pilot. Controller issues voice amendment to en route aircraft that disagrees with route entered into automation.
  10. NextGen/SESAR hazard condition: Ground controller coordinates runway crossing with local controller. Associated human performance hazard: Ground controller fails to coordinate runway crossing with local controller and authorizes aircraft to cross runway (extremely high risk).
  11. Aircraft now feature a greater number of automated systems that require repairs and parts replacement. This may have a negative impact on the number and qualifications of aircraft mechanics needed.
  12. Ground-based automation fails to recognize dynamic nature of air traffic situation and is unable to find a solution. April 18, 2013: During a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on aviation safety, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) requested a decision from FAA by the end of the year on expanding the in-flight use of portable electronic devices (PEDs) on commercial flights. McCaskill has been a strong advocate for the issue in recent months, writing a letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta expressing her concern with the issue, and stating her intention to introduce legislation forcing expanded use of PEDs if FAA does not move quickly enough. McCaskill has also said she feels the rule is outdated because of commercial airlines’ transition to pilots’ use of iPads and other tablet computers as electronic flight bags in the cockpit. FAA’s Aviation Rulemaking Committee has a July 31 deadline to propose recommendations on changes to the current regulations on PEDs.

Corroborating sources and comments

  • FAA Safety Alert for Operators (SAFo) 13002; date: 1/4/13
  • Air carrier accidents and incidents indicate an increase in “manual handling errors” among airline crews. “Maintaining an improving the knowledge and skills for manual flight operation is necessary for safe flight,” according to the Safety Alert.
    CAA PAPER 2004/10, Flight Crew Reliance on Automation,, Safety Regulation Group
  • Sawyer, Michael, Ph.D., Berry, Katie, Ph.D., Blanding, Ryan, NextGen Human Hazard Assessment Report, TASC, Inc., Washington, DC, November 2010
  • There are philosophical approaches with automation, following accidents there seem to be 3 things possible:
  1. Modify the aircraft
  2. Modify training
  3. Do nothing
  4. Fully automated aircraft (un-crewed aircraft) On these points:
    1. This is what most manufacturers have done over the years, usually under pressure from CAAs because they argued that they couldn’t influence the pilots’ environment. In addition, for automation failures whenever they were related to envelope protection, occurrences that were so rare that normal training would not be a solution Fokker modified the aircraft. Even so, Fokker jet aircraft are not safer than say the 737 fleet.
    2. This is generally the approach used by other major manufacturers, and they have been relatively successful. The safety record of the 737 fleet is at least as good or better than the A320, and over the years the cadre of pilots flying both of these aircraft, one heavily automated and the other not fitted with a “dark cockpit” have definitely learned to operate these aircraft safely. In other words, the pilot population has grown so large that the group harvests and maintains the vigilance and tribal knowledge necessary to operate these aircraft, a vigilance that goes beyond airline training and regulatory requirements.
    3. We could say things like: a) “this is as good (safe) as it gets” and b) let’s spend money on the motor vehicle domain because the risk of death is much larger there.

    Bottom line: We do not fully understand pilot decision making in unusual situations. When pilots lose control of a serviceable aircraft, it is presumed to happen as a result of incorrect reactions to what they see – or what they think they see. Understanding why pilots do what they do entails understanding how they gather their information before they make decisions. It is not only a matter of employing techniques such as eye-tracking to check instrument scan, but also an examination of pilot behavior, how pilots monitor each other, what interaction the monitoring produces and whether it is effective. Learmount, David, IN FOCUS: Loss of control – training the wrong stuff? FlightGlobal, January 2012

Last update

January, 2013