Tom Dieusaert is a worried man. He sees a future where the current pilot-copilot system is replaced by a single pilot who will serve as the sole human agent to take control should an automated system fail.
He fears that commercial carriers will eventually seek to eliminate even these human backstops. The airlines will tell us that pilotless planes offer the ultimate in aviation safety.
The journalist is alarmed that the current duopoly – Boeing and Airbus — that manufactures the majority of the planes flown by the world’s airlines are more focused on the bottom line than on safety.
And he sees air travelers increasingly flocking to ultra-low fare airlines, apparently willing to sacrifice not only their comfort but possibly their safety for a lower fare.
That’s the basic premise of his book Computer Crashes: When Aircraft Systems Fail, first published in 2017 and updated in 2020 follow the crash of two Boeing 737MAX aircrafts.
In a telephone interview from his home in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the Belgium journalist, who is not himself a pilot, said he has spent the better part of six years researching the topic of automation and aviation.
Dieusaert doesn’t suggest that flying today is unsafe.
“I agree that flying today is the safest it’s ever been,” he said. “But I have to add a caveat: they have to maintain the same two pilot system they have today. I think if they take one pilot away, they will lose air safety.”
His interest in the issue of automation and air safety was first piqued by the crash in the South Atlantic of Air France flight 447, an Airbus A330 flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris on June 1, 2009. All 228 passengers and crew were killed.
He writes that, as he and his daughter were scheduled to take the same flight later that month, he followed the subsequent investigation of the crash with great interest.
How could such a technologically advanced aircraft mysteriously fall from the sky, he wondered.
A formal report on the accident, issued three years later, determined that the aircraft crashed after temporary inconsistencies between the airspeed measurements —likely due to the aircraft’s pitot tubes being obstructed by ice crystals— caused the autopilot to disconnect. The crew then reacted incorrectly and ultimately caused the aircraft to enter an aerodynamic stall, from which it did not recover.
But as it turned out, his own investigation was just beginning. As he put it, “you learn something and it leads you to something else.”
That “something else” included other incidents involving the failure of automated systems, including:
- The crash of AirAsia flight Q8501 on Dec. 28, 2014, traveling from Surabaya, Indonesia to Singapore, killing all 162 people on board the Airbus 321. Authorities determined that the non-standard reset of the flight control system led to the loss of control of the aircraft;
- Lufthansa flight 1929 traveling from Bilbao, Spain to Munich, Germany with 109 people on board on Nov. 5, 2014. Pilots successfully regained control of the aircraft after the autopilot unexpectedly lowered the nose and entered a decent reaching 4000 feet per minute. No injuries were reported and the aircraft landed safely.
- Qantas flight 72, an Airbus 330 traveling from Singapore to Perth, Australia on Oct. 7, 2008. Pilots were forced to make an emergency landing after a pair of uncommanded pitch-down maneuvers caused several injuries. One crew member and 11 passengers suffered serious injuries, while eight crew and 99 passengers suffered minor injuries.
While not all the incidents led to fatal crashes, each involved pilots unable to overcome faulty automated systems.
Through his research and conversations with local pilots, he came to believe that the real cause of these incidents was the increasing reliance on automated systems in aviation.
Dieusaert’s premise is that automated systems aboard aircraft today – such as the fly-by-wire system pioneered by Airbus that allows aircraft computers to perform tasks without pilot input — have made it increasingly difficult for pilots to intervene should a mechanical, electronic or computer failure occur.
Following the initial publication of his book in 2017, he heard from numerous pilots confirming his hypothesis.
Then came the twin crashes of Lion Air flight JT610 and Ethiopian Airlines flight 301, both Boeing 737MAX aircraft.
The Lion Air domestic flight from Jakarta, Indonesia, to Panghal Pinang crashed on Oct. 29, 2018, killing all 189 people on board.
The Ethiopian Airlines flight was traveling from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to Nairobi, Kenya. It crashed on March 10, 2019, killing all 157 people on board.
In both cases, it appears that the pilots were unable to counter faulty automatic controls that led both planes to pitch down and plunge into the ground.
That and other problems subsequently discovered regarding the design of the aircraft led to its worldwide grounding, an order that remains in effect.
Those incidents prompted Dieusaert to release an updated version of his book earlier this year.
“The reason I originally wrote the book in 2017 was to point out that the manufacturers of the planes admitted there were flaws with their aircraft,” he said.
Of course, pilots also made mistakes, he said, but added: “Let’s focus not on what the pilot did wrong, but what was wrong with the mechanical situation.”
Dieusaert sees a host of reasons why aviation safety may be under increasing threat.
“Everybody plays a role in the current problem,” he said, including aircraft manufacturers, airlines, regulatory authorities and even passengers.
“It’s a multiple problem, but of course, it’s ultimately a business question,” he said. “We have hundreds of thousands of planes in the air every day, so safety [currently] is actually at a very high point,” he said. “But the problem for me is that there’s a duopoly. There are two plane makers controlling the whole airline business. It’s not a good situation.”
Manufacturers are walking a financial tightrope in the planes they design. “If you go over to the safety side, you’re flirting with bankruptcy; if you go over to the profit side, you’re flirting with accidents,” he said.
Dieusaert also fears that increase automation in the cockpit will reduce the skill level of younger pilots.
“As you get more automation, you begin to rely more on automation and you get lazy as an operator,” he said. “It’s just like today’s generation of young drivers who don’t know how to read a roadmap.”
It becomes a vicious circle, with fewer competent pilots leading to calls for increased automation.
“[Aircraft] manufacturers have no confidence today in pilots,” he said, adding that “a pilot contacted me to tell me that he worries about the capabilities of the younger generation of pilots.”
Meanwhile, airlines, especially low-fare carriers, see increasing automation as a way to reduce staffing and cut costs. Some ultra-low-fare airlines are already pressing to be allowed to operate with only one pilot on board, he said.
“The passenger who wants a flight as cheap as possible has to know that he is contributing to more automation and pilots with less flying skill,” he said. “He will probably in a number of years be flying in a jet without a pilot in it.”
He asked, “Do you want to put your life in the hands of inexperienced pilots? That’s what’s happening now.”
At some point in the future, when air travel returns to a more normal level following the covid 19 pandemic, manufacturers, airlines and passengers will all have to face a new reality, Dieusaert said.
“I think in the future we’re going to have to start flying less and paying more, not only because of the impact flying has on climate change but also to maintain flight safety, he predicted.