A headline calling it a ‘battle’ of the control freaks would be an over reach at this stage, but there is no doubt that recent incidents and tragedies involving a loss of control over a modern computer aided airliner are turning up the volume on an important airline industry debate.

On the day after a UK coroner made findings about the conduct of Air France flight AF447 which crashed in 2009 in the mid Atlantic with the loss of 228 lives, a Flightglobal blog editor offered this summary:

Loss of control in flight (LOC-I) is the biggest killer in an industry that is getting safer, and it has been growing as a problem in its own right.

Its rise as an issue has accompanied the gradual automation of flightdecks, and the decline of direct pilot mental and physical involvement in directing the aircraft.

One of the factors behind the delay in the industry’s reaction to LOC-I was that the connection between it and automation was not obvious, and although it is recognised as a factor now, it is only one of many changes that have happened in the industry over the same time.

But now the beginnings of a reaction are about to become visible. The US Federal Aviation Administration is about to make upset prevention and recovery training (UPRT) mandatory for airlines, and EASA will do the same. The FAA also proposes to demand that simulator manufacturers make their devices represent flight close to and just outside the aircraft’s flight envelope more accurately,  so that stalling and UPRT can be more realistically practised in flight simulation training devices.

The rest of his summation can be read here.

There are in fact two opposing sets of Control Freaks to consider in this issue at its broadest.

It is clear from interviews done by this reporter, and reading the various reports and literature that there are management Control Freaks that are attracted to anything which diminishes the claimed ‘unaffordable costs’ of traditional pilot excellence in terms of training, recurrency and pay by being convinced that automation is becoming so reliable that those manual skills will actually add to equipment wear and tear and more fuel costs than absolutely necessary.

At the other extreme, there are Control Freaks that insist a very significant suite of hands on skills and judgemental and cockpit team cultural values  are essential if we are to have successful control crisis outcomes like QF32 rather than disasters like AF447.

This is a contest, or discussion, or even battle, that might properly engage Ministers or Secretaries responsible for aviation safety regulators everwhere in the world, as well as staying front of mind of the boards and senior managers who are, at least in this country, personally liable for their carrier’s safe operations.

At one extreme there is the lure, if not commendable pursuit, of better productivity, cost savings and profitability. At the other extreme, there is the risk of a preventible accident, a heap of dead people, and brand damage on an unprecedented scale.

In this country the main focus of media reporting, which is generally framed in terms of financial news stories, or PR stuff aimed at product puffing, might also consider on-the-record commitments to dealing with the changing safety environment being caused by technological advancements.

It’s not that Australia’s major airlines should be criticised over such matters. They have good stories to tell, but apart from an increased and merited Qantas safety sub text in some of its advertising, they seem to think this is an area left to mild passing references, or left unsaid.

As the debate gradually gains momentum abroad, it will also be heard here.

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