The Boeing 737 Max crashes show that ‘deteriorating pilot skills’ may push airlines to favour Airbus


  • The recentBoeing 737 Maxcrashes happened after pilots were unable to countermand the planes’ autopilot systems.
  • But airlines may not favour increased pilot control of their planes because of “deteriorating pilot skills,” especially in developing countries where “pilot skills and training may not be on par with standards in the US,” according to analyst Richard Safran.
  • Two aircraft experts told Business Insider that modern commercial airliners are indeed designed to be flown by pilots with less experience.
  • The trend could favour sales ofAirbus’A320neo, which offers more automated flight control thanBoeing’splanes.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Experts are tentatively blaming thetwo recent crashes of Boeing’s 737 Max planeson the over-automation of Boeing’s flight system, which prevented the pilots from manually controlling the jets’ forced dives when their systems wrongly concluded the planes were flying upward when they were not.

You might think this would push airlines to favor aircraft where pilots had more direct control over an aircraft’s flight. But in the case of the 737 Max, you might be wrong, according to Buckingham Research Group analyst Richard Safran.

He sent a note to clients last week saying that Airbus believed the autopilot system in its A320neo planes — the direct competitors to Boeing’s 737 Max — gave Airbus an advantage precisely because it gives pilots less direct control over the aircraft.

“Airbus told me the reason that their flight control system takes on more control authority is to overcome deteriorating pilot skills”

“Airbus told me the reason that their flight control system takes on more control authority is to overcome deteriorating pilot skills,” Safran told clients. “The long-term impact of the Max issues may be that developing world customers view the A320neo and the authority given to its flight control system as better suited to their needs, given that pilot skills and training may not be on par with standards in the US or developed world. That could drive additional narrowbody market share from (Boeing) BA to Airbus,” a copy of the note, seen by Business Insider, said.

An Airbus A320neo.
Airbus

That is counterintuitive because in the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes — which killed 189 and 157 people, respectively — the autopilot system wrongly believed the planes were flying upward too steeply and forced the planes into dives. The pilots were unable to countermand the automated system, suggesting that greater pilot control could have saved the planes.

“A difference between the BA and Airbus flight control system is that Airbus gives the autopilot more authority over aircraft functions. BA’s system puts more faith in the pilot, making it more of a pilots’ airplane,” Safran wrote.

“The rules and regulations governing training and type rating for commercial pilots are strict,” Airbus says

Business Insider asked Airbus if it was true that the company was engineering its planes because airlines in developing countries used pilots with lower skill levels.

“All aircraft can be flown manually without any form of autopilot or flight protection, and therefore airmanship is a core value in the training process alongside a culture of safety first no matter what the aircraft type or where in the world it will be flown,” a spokesperson told Business Insider.

A Boeing 737 Max cockpit.
Boeing

“Pilot licenses are granted by the local aviation authorities and can be based on internationally accepted criteria such as from the FAA in the US and EASA in Europe. The rules and regulations governing training and type rating for commercial pilots are strict, no matter what the aircraft model or the manufacturer,” the company said.

Boeing did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“Obviously, the lack of information and pilot training inadequacies was a major player in those tragic accidents”

The idea that commercial airliners are being re-engineered to make up for the deteriorating skills of pilots might be disconcerting to ordinary travelers. We asked two experts whether this was true.

They both agreed, with qualifications.

“Obviously, the lack of information and pilot training inadequacies was a major player in those tragic accidents,” Alan Diehl, a former NTSB investigator and FAA scientist, said.

But the lack of training was compounded by mistakes made by Boeing’s autopilot system, and difficulty the pilots had in turning it off. In older Boeing models, pilots can break the system’s hold by grabbing the control column. In the 737 Max, that was not the case.

The Boeing 737 Max 8 airliner involved in the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302.
Wikimedia Commons/LLBG Spotter/ CC BY-SA 2.0,

Diehl said:

“The two recent Max crashes revealed a series of engineering oversights that occurred in rushing the Max to market. Probably the most significant one was the use of a single angle of attack sensor feeding information to the all-too-powerful automated anti-stall system (the MCAS). Computers are ‘dumb and dutiful’ and erroneous information supplied to the MCAS without pilot awareness was a recipe for disaster. This was due in part to the cacophony of warnings permeating the cockpit, while those crews tried to troubleshoot the mysterious problem(s) producing their aircrafts’ nose-down pitching.”

“In many countries, the regulations allow airline pilots to start their careers with many fewer total hours than what is allowed in the US”

Todd Curtis, a former Boeing safety engineer and creator of the AirSafe.com web site, said, “It is true that in many countries, the regulations allow airline pilots to start their careers with many fewer total hours than what is allowed in the US. In general, more experience translates into a more capable pilot.”

“Is it true that Airbus is designing aircraft to deal with deteriorating skills? I can’t say if that is the case,” he said. “I can say that the design of aircraft by Boeing, Airbus, and other manufacturers has continued to evolve and part of that evolution includes using systems and procedures in aircraft and by air traffic control authorities that allow flight crews to conduct flights with less direct interaction with the aircraft than was the case 20 or 30 years ago.”

While easier direct pilot intervention might have saved both the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines flights, the fact is that greater automation in flying has made air travel safer over the years.

“It is obvious that automation’s overall impact has been highly beneficial to safety and that the problems with the 737 Max can be fixed. Unfortunately, ‘fly, fix, fly’ has always been a reality in the aviation industry,” Diehl said.

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