Does Increased Automation Make Flying Feel Safer?

In a 1950s magazine ad for Pan American Airlines, a Norman Rockwell portrait shows a crisply uniformed pilot gazing ahead with deep self-assurance. He's sporting "the look of experience," the ad copy explains, the look you get from being able to "see around the world." The poster man is Captain John Mattis, an actual Pan Am pilot who expertly guided more than 500 transatlantic Pan Am Clippers to safety, in the process becoming the airline's public face. "Pan American: The World's Most Experienced Airline" reads the slogan below Mattis's portrait.

Today the idea of Captain John at the controls, actively weaving an airliner between fluffy clouds, is about as folksy a notion as a Rockwell painting (or, for that matter, a spread for Pan Am—the airline was permanently shuttered in 1991). What we may have casually, selectively disregarded, with Captain Chesley Sullenberger's help, is as of Oct. 21 pretty hard to ignore: commercial aviation is so thoroughly systematized, so profoundly automated, that two experienced Northwest Airlines pilots could fiddle with their computers for 150 miles and still touch down safely in Minneapolis. No harm, not a whole lot of foul—two revoked licenses, a Federal Aviation Administration investigation, and the deepening irony of any airline slogan involving the words "team" or "people."

It's hard to know whether all of this is comforting or instead likely to boost air-travel stress levels in consumers. "I worry [about public perception], given the events that occurred in Buffalo that didn't inspire confidence, and now this unfortunate incident," says Bill Voss, CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation, an independent, international organization dedicated to aviation safety. "[American aviation] is still at a spectacularly safe level, but this gives the public a sense of how…people are inherently lousy monitors of systems. It's very difficult for two well-trained, intelligent, well-rested people to sit and stare out the window for hours and hours at a time."

With little active work to do, the tedium of midflight cruising can encourage alternative distractions, such as the two Northwest flight 188 pilots' laptops. While there are strict federal bans on the use of electronic devices at lower altitudes, where pilots are either taking off or landing a plane, there aren't bans on electronic devices above 10,000 feet. (That goes for passengers, too: breaking into cruising altitude means you can finally whip out your iPod.) "The more sophisticated aircraft become in eliminating human error, the more we rely on them, and [pilots] may not be attentive," says Jonathan Bricker, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Washington and a published expert on the subject of flying anxiety. While plane automation makes flight safer, thanks to the many systemic redundancies in the computers, which guard against error, Bricker says that knowing there's essentially no one behind the controls could make already-skittish fliers "add this to their file cabinet of fears." The combination of autopilot making planes safer but also allowing for less pilot attention, which is needed in case of catastrophic incidents, is "a mixed blessing," he says.

Absent federal regulation, individual airlines (including Northwest's parent company, Delta Air Lines) have specific policies that forbid the use of potentially distracting electronics on the flight deck while at higher altitudes. But international airlines are more sympathetic to the tedium of mid-flight cruising: British Airways and Air France, for instance, allow "controlled" cockpit napping at cruising altitudes (meaning short naps in shifts during the automated middle part of a long flight's trajectory). The FAA strictly prohibits napping—falling asleep on the job is considered "careless and reckless operation of an aircraft"—but just last month, the Air Transport Association, a trade association, lobbied the FAA to consider updating its crew-rest policies to allow controlled sleep. Per a letter from the trade association, "NASA research findings provide overwhelming evidence that controlled napping provides significant operational mitigation to fatigue risk." (The ATA declined a NEWSWEEK request for comment.)

Purely from a public-relations perspective, that doesn't look like the most shrewd move today, even if napping, as the ATA argues, has a net positive effect on pilot awareness, and electronics use doesn't. On the subject of pilot negligence, "the public has hair-trigger judgment," Bricker says. "But it's important to see that behind that anger is real fear. It's the thinking, if I was on [Northwest Flight 188], there is a possibility that something very catastrophic could have occurred." The fact that the pilots were using laptops and complex scheduling software intensifies that concern, Bricker says, because computers are not "something that requires light cognitive effort. They require a fairly high level of concentration and mental ability." All of which underscores just how engrossed the pilots were in not flying the plane, he says.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who has decried the use of electronic devices while driving as "a menace to society," suggested this week that he will pursue government intervention in cockpit use of any electronic device. "We're not going to equivocate on this," LaHood said Wednesday at a Senate committee hearing. "Any kind of distraction, whether it's [on] trains, planes or automobiles, is a distraction and we should figure out ways to get these cell phones, the texting…and the use of laptops out of the hands of people who are supposed to be delivering the public to somewhere safely."

But while a federal ban might psychologically relax the consumer—and look like progress on the part of politicians--the Flight Safety Foundation's Voss warns that it could inadvertently make the problem worse. Without data collection on how common distracted flying is, "the only way to even understand the extent of the problem is to actually have a relationship with flight crews, where they will confide in [us]," he says. The pilot or pilots on any commercial flight are seated behind locked doors, without witnesses; self-reporting is the only real way to gather data. More regulation "could actually drive the problem underground."

A federal ban may still prevail due to the wave of public and political pressure on the industry, Voss says, even if such a ban would be a relatively meaningless way to deal with passengers' fears: "If regulation solved all the problems in aviation, we'd just have to outlaw crashes."