The FAA says conclusions reached in a years-in-the-making industry-government report on how flight deck automation is affecting flight path management both validates many existing agency initiatives and provides specific direction for additional areas of focus.

The report, “Operational Use of Flight Path Management Systems,” released today lists 29 findings and 18 wide-ranging recommendations, touching on everything from the flight deck design process to how operational data is collected and analyzed. The FAA has issued rules or guidance related to many of them, including detailed rules on pilot qualification and training requirements this year. 

The FAA also announced an air carrier training steering group consisting of government and industry officials to investigate training issues and advocate for voluntary implementation of best practices and other recommendations.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta asked a group of airline safety advocates meeting in Washington today to sort through approximately 25 recommendations developed by the NTSB and three aviation rulemaking committees to generate five focus areas as the “first order of business” for the steering group. Along with pilot training, Huerta also asked the group to include recommendations for flight attendants and dispatcher.

While the new training regulations raise some standards and introduce others, such as upset and stall recovery training, it is not clear that the FAA’s actions will address some of the more nuanced issues uncovered in the flight path management report.

One finding says that while automated systems have improved safety, pilots rely too much on them, continue to be confused by autoflight modes and “may be reluctant to intervene” when they are faced with a confusing, automation-related situation.

“The Flight Deck Automation Working Group (AWG) concluded that modern flight path management systems create new challenges that can lead to errors,” the FAA says in its summary of the report. “Those challenges include complexity in systems and in operations, concerns about degradation of pilot knowledge and skills, and integration and interdependence of the components of the aviation system.”

AWG’s report “validates the work the FAA has been doing and more narrowly focuses the agency on the specific steps that can be taken to further respond to the recommendations,” the agency adds.

The Commercial Aviation Safety Team and the FAA’s Performance-Based Aviation Rulemaking Committee formed the AWG in 2006 to look at the issue of automation in flight path management. The working group’s analysis included examining global incident and accident reports, comparing and contrasting them with some 9,000 Line Operations Safety Audit (LOSA) reports. The new report is a follow-on to a 1996 FAA Human Factors Working Group study on flight crew and flight deck system interface. That report listed 51 recommendations, including some on evaluating flight deck design and systems from a human performance perspective. 

Earlier this year, the agency issued new certification standards based in part on the flight deck design recommendations. “Until now, little or no guidance has existed to show the applicant how they may address potential flight crew limitations and design-related errors,” the agency explains. The new standards require manufacturers to factor human abilities and limitations into their designs.

While many in the industry welcome such moves, there is acknowledgment that waiting on regulators to mandate changes to known problems is not always the most prudent course of action. That was the motivation behind an industry-driven group working on a fast-tracked project aimed at improving pilot monitoring skills.

The working group formed a year ago following discussions at an industry human factors meeting. The group’s final report, expected out by the end of the year, will present qualitative data—much of it derived from LOSA reports—to establish inadequate monitoring as a widespread problem. One conclusion reached, according to working group members, is that LOSA data reveals poor monitoring skills that make pilots at least twice as likely to make a mistake compared to pilots that monitor effectively. 

To combat these challenges, the group plans to punctuate its report with several straightforward recommendations and publish related training aids designed for quick implementation by flight training departments.