The New Cockpit Threat

Forget Canada geese. Pilots have a new menace: boredom. Clive Irving on why today’s automated cockpits could cause more incidents like the Northwest flight that overshot its target by 120 miles.

At first sight, it seems like a bad joke: Northwest Airlines flight 188 from L.A. to Minneapolis-St. Paul forgets to land at St. Paul. In fact, the Airbus A320 flies on for another hour and 20 minutes, no less, before turning around.

What happened in that cockpit? The pilots say they “lost situational awareness” while arguing about airline policy. The immediate suspicion is that they fell asleep. And from that the issue of fatigue follows.

But it’s not so simple—we could be dealing with something new.

The cockpit voice recorders should quickly expose what happened on Northwest 188. Protracted silence would be the most telling thing. Were they just bored out of their minds?

For a long while now, the piloting community has been concerned about the undemanding workload of highly automated cockpits. Even a fully rested and awake pilot has little to do during the cruise phase of a flight in an airplane as sophisticated as the Airbus A320. If there are no weather alerts to worry about, flying can be left to the autopilot, which is part of a computerized flight-management system.

For sure, cockpit automation has greatly improved safety. These days most pilots have never faced a situation where the old-fashioned, seat-of-the-pants skills are needed to get out of trouble.

The problem is that the physical part of the art of flying has atrophied. I’ve talked to experts on this, and they have a phrase for it: “Proficiency failure.”

When pilots are being tested for the sharpness of their responses, they do so without leaving the ground, in simulators that are as sophisticated as the airplane itself. Emergencies are thrown at them and, since they know that’s what they are facing, they are ready.

But in the real world, flying legs between cities several times a day, it all becomes very routine. And I wonder if what we are looking at with the “fly by” of Minneapolis might not be a form of miasma—called boredom. The kind of boredom that becomes soporific.

The euphemism of losing “situational awareness” could be an evasive way of describing just this altered state.

Clive Irving: What to Know About Airline Safety RecordsClive Irving: How Turbulence Can Turn DeadlyFatigue itself is certainly an increasing concern. There are caps on the hours a crew can spend in the sky—on domestic U.S. flights, regionals, and majors, pilots can fly for only eight hours in any 24-hour period. But that leaves a whole invisible world away from the cockpit that can’t be regulated. The rule is that after a flight the pilots should have at least nine hours of consecutive rest. But who’s watching?

The often harsh reality of crew rest times was exposed by the crash of Continental Flight 3407 in Buffalo early this year. The co-pilot, 24-year-old Rebecca Shaw, had hitched flights on FedEx planes, involving a cross-country “red-eye” from her home in Seattle, before reaching Newark, the departure point of Flight 3407. The pilot, Marvin Renslow, had had a full day’s rest the day before but had slept in the Newark crew lounge before departure, against the regulations of the company operating the flight for Continental, Colgan Air.

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Then there is micro-sleep, the kind that causes road accidents when a fatigued driver slips involuntarily into a few seconds of sleep, but that’s enough to be fatal. Research carried out for the U.S. military found that 80 percent of regional pilots admitted to nodding off during a flight.

The cockpit voice recorders should quickly expose to the National Transportation Safety Board what happened on Northwest 188. Protracted silence would be the most telling thing. Were they just bored out of their minds?

Clive Irving is senior consulting editor at Condé Nast Traveler, specializing in aviation.