United Airlines, a leading, voluntary participant in the FAA’s state-of-the-art safety discipline Safety Management System (SMS), did the right thing by sending a message to their pilots that objective data and some incidents (not accidents) indicates that their skill levels need refinement. Unfortunately, the FAA ignored the basic comity that should mark SMS and it assailed UA for “a systemic hazard.” The carrier, again, did the right thing and issued a game plan to address its self-identified deficiency. That’s the way SMS is supposed to work.
It should be noted preliminarily that the deterioration of cockpit stick and rudder skills is a general trend in the airline industry. This is not a phenomena being experienced just by this airline, but its proactive approach to respond to the challenge is the only one that is subject of news reporting.
The below Wall Street Journal article by the same reporter who broke the story of the UA memorandum recites what the company is doing to improve its pilots’ skills. Here are a few:
· “United later this year intends to put a group of specially trained observers in selected cockpits to document the extent of pilot adherence to mandatory procedure.”
· “The airline also plans to boost training aimed at helping captains and co-pilots work more closely together as a team during flights.”
· “…Mr. Attarian said ‘we observed behavior that was unacceptable, in my opinion.’ The importance of doing something to curb such lapses, he said, was ‘fully supported by the data’ company officials analyzed. He said the training and cockpit-monitoring changes are intended to ensure that pilots operate appropriately and under ‘scrutiny of programs that were intended to keep the airline safe.’”
This set of steps to assure that the cockpit crews meet the high proficiency standards are met cannot, and should not under SMS, be developed intuitively. The safety discipline requires that a strong correlation must exist between the problem and the designed solution. The selection of solutions from a comprehensive catalogue must be evaluated on the specific solution sought, the immediacy of the resolution and the ability to reach the population of those who need to improve.
United is doing it right. It conceived of the concept of Cockpit Resource Management and shared that advanced teaching technique with its competitors. In addition to this immediate response, the airline manufacturers might consider using ergonomics to maintain the existing level of automation while increasing the interface of the pilots into the cockpit systems.