The recent instance of a Northwest airliner flying past its destination because of the pilots' preoccupation with their computers raises new questions about how airline crews communicate — and the risks of automation.
As aviation consultant Michael Goldfarb tells NPR's Renee Montagne, it's still very safe to fly. The problem, he says, is that pilots are now more susceptible to boredom and fatigue.
"There's so much automation in the cockpit that, literally, an aircraft taking off from Los Angeles and landing in New York can have very little attendance by the crew," says Goldfarb, a former chief of staff at the Federal Aviation Administration.
"That automation has created a problem of boredom in the cockpit," he says.
Goldfarb compares the pilots' case to the dangerous phenomenon of drivers and train conductors using their cell phones to break up the monotony.
"It's 'driven to distraction,' " he says.
The Northwest flight landed safely in Minneapolis. But Goldfarb says that in the 90 minutes the pilots were distracted, they were very likely ignoring messages from traffic control towers and other pilots.
"The No. 1 rule of pilot training is to expect the unexpected," he says. "That's what you train against."
After the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings, the FAA mandated new cockpit doors on commercial airliners. Cabin crews no longer have access to the cockpit. The Northwest pilots were alerted that they had missed the airport when the crew knocked on the door to ask when they might land.
The aviation industry might be realizing that pilots may have too much automation at their disposal, Goldfarb says.
"Some airlines and the manufacturers are considering reintroducing manual controls, so that your skills don't atrophy," he says. "If you don't use those skills, they do begin to atrophy.
"And that boredom can be very, very difficult and distracting for the crew."