Boeing crashes raise questions about automation and U.S. flight safety involvement

Countries and airlines around the world have grounded Boeing 737 Max planes after two fatal crashes, with a lot of similarities between them. The planes have been grounded by the FAA, joined by dozens of other countries.

Boeing crashes raise questions about automation and U.S. flight safety involvement

Flying need to be simple for pilots

Cockpit crew need enough information to make split-second decisions without being overwhelmed. It’s not an intractable challenge.

The problem comes with split-second decisions. Using autopilot to preserve a crew’s mental energy is all very well. Over time, though, mental muscles that go unused end up atrophying. That’s a problem because most air accidents occur in bizarre and unexpected situations where pilots are having to diagnose a baffling problem under high pressure. One 2014 study of highly experienced Boeing 747 pilots found that 15 out of 16 failed to react properly to misreadings of airspeed in simulator tests, to the extent that the “aircraft” started to stall.

Boeing should be worried about that, considering all of the negative comments coming from pilots who’ve flown the 737 Max and predecessor versions is that changes to the basic design and flight control systems make it feel like a different aircraft. Such differences risk breeding confusion.

Pilot training is becoming the main focus

One of the fundamental aspects of flight safety is type classification. A brand-new aircraft must go through type certification, a laborious procedure where a regulator checks that the plane and every one of its component parts is safe. In the case of the Boeing 787, that took eight years and thousands of hours at the Federal Aviation Administration alone. Costs for the process can run into the hundreds of millions of dollars: Though Boeing produces new commercial aircraft no more than once a decade or so, the regulator spends about $230 million every year on certifying new aircraft and parts.

On top of that there’s type rating, which ensures pilots are familiar with the aircraft in question and fully qualified to fly it. This, again, can be phenomenally expensive. Pilots, who typically spend about $70,000 just getting a commercial license, will have to fork out another $30,000 or so each time they’re trained to fly a new aircraft – one reason why most stick to a single model.

The desire to minimize these costs is understandable, especially when there’s a global pilot shortage and a cutthroat aircraft market that typically leaves both Boeing and Airbus with single-digit profit margins.

For many new airplane models, pilots train for hours on giant, multimillion-dollar machines, on-the-ground versions of cockpits that mimic the flying experience and teach them new features. But in the case of the Max, many pilots with 737 experience learned about the plane on an iPad.

As Boeing pushed to get the plane done, flights simulators designed specifically for the Max weren’t ready. Greg Bowen, the training and standards chair at the Southwest pilots association, said that senior leadership at the carrier told him the engineering data necessary to design simulator software was still being finalized right up until the plane was nearly completed.

Raising questions about the safety of flight automation

Automation is widely used in commercial aviation and has been praised for making the skies much safer. But there are growing concerns among pilots and safety experts that the industry is relying too much on automation and even moreso on extremely complicated and complex systems.

Basically, the downside is that technology gets too complex.

Certainly, the industry is aware and has been for decades, that the introduction of automation is a double-edged sword,” said Clint Balog, a former test pilot who researches human performance, cognition, and error at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Countries are banning the Boeing 737 after the two recent similar crashes

After the two recent plane crashes, from Ethiopian Airlines and Indonesian Lion Air, countries are starting to be more cautious about the planes the choose to use.

First it was China, after that Indonesia, followed by 30 other countries among which Singapore and Australia.

The U.S. had for decades taken the lead in issuing aviation safety guidance to carriers and countries. Countries instead followed China, set to become the world’s biggest air travel market by the middle of the next decade, according to the International Air Transport Association.

The U.S. is taking no action

The inaction from the U.S. had drawn criticism from some, like former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, whose FAA grounded the Dreamliners in 2013, before the FAA made the call that it should have grounded the planes.

Others, including former Continental Airlines CEO Gordon Bethune, who previously oversaw production of 737s and 757 at Boeing, said the U.S. should wait until it had more information.

The FAA said it had no information to warrant grounding the Boeing 737 Max planes, even as other nations and airlines took that step. Of the more than 350 of the planes that have been delivered to carriers worldwide, 72 are in U.S. airline fleets, including those of American, United and Southwest. Boeing has 4.600 more on order globally.