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Airline "Automation Addicts" Dice with Death

Airline pilots are so hooked on automated flight systems that they're losing their skills and risking lives.

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By Anthony Daconti

09/01/11

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A dangerous new habit has been credited as the most common current cause of airline accidents. So-called "automation addiction"—rusty pilots' tendency to rely more on automated flight systems and autopilot features than on the training that landed them in the cockpit in the first place—has cost the lives of hundreds of passengers in some 51 “loss of control” commercial accidents over the past five years. Autopilot technology means that these days pilots only need “fly” the plane themselves during take-off and landing—that's roughly three minutes of action. Pilots sometimes “abdicate too much responsibility to automated systems,” concluded a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) draft study obtained by the Associated Press. This lack of practice weakens their response times to mid-flight problems, mechanical failures and emergencies. Rory Kay, an airline captain and co-chairman of a Federal Aviation Administration committee on pilot training, recognizes automation addiction as "a new breed of accident," concluding, “We're forgetting how to fly.” One case in point was a Continental Airlines crash near Buffalo, NY, in 2009, which claimed the lives of all 49 people on board. An investigation found no mechanical or structural problems that would have prevented the plane from flying had the captain responded correctly, attributing the disaster to pilot error. The FAA recommends pilots wean themselves off the computers and take personal control of their airplanes more often, sharpening their skills for when they're needed most.

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