By Shaun Read


In the early hours of 1 June 2009, an Air France Airbus A330, en route from Brazil to France, stalled and plummeted into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all on board.  Four years later, on 6 July 2013, an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 clipped a runway seawall and crashed on its final approach to San Francisco International Airport, killing 3 and injuring 187 others. On 28 December 2014 an Air Asia Airbus A320 fell out of the sky and crashed into the Java Sea.  As in the case of the Air France crash, there were no survivors.


On the face of it, these three tragedies seemingly have little in common as they involved 3 different aircraft types, 2 aircraft manufacturers and occurred years apart.  Yet, on closer examination, all 3 air crashes had the following in common:


  • despite the failure of technology designed to assist the pilots, they all could have been prevented;
  • they were ultimately caused by the inability of the pilots to apply the most basic of flying skills which even the most junior of student pilots is required to master.


How is it possible that, in each case, pilots having many thousands of flying hours crashed airworthy aircraft?  According to each of the accident reports, the answer lies in the degradation of flying skills caused by an over reliance on automated systems in the cockpit.


In the case of the Air France crash, the accident report concluded that the pilots were unable to recognise and recover from a high altitude stall caused by incorrect pilot input in response to false airspeed readings caused by a blocked pitot tube.  The Asiana Airlines crash report concluded that the pilot in command was unable to effect a manual approach and landing after the airport instrument landing system on the runway was reported as inoperative.  On 1 December 2015, the Indonesian National Transport authorities released an accident report showing that the Air Asia pilots lacked the training to recover from a high altitude stall as the level of automation of the aircraft made such training unnecessary.


The study of the effects of automation and on pilot skills is not new.  In 1977, the House Committee on Science and Technology of the US Congress identified over reliance on flight deck automation as an issue.  In 2013, the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) release a report of a study, initiated in 1996, on the effects of cockpit automation.  The report identified that pilot flying skills had degraded as the level of automation increased and that this had contributed to or been the primary cause of a number of air crashes.  In January 2013, in anticipation of the release of its finding, the FAA issued directive to all US airlines to re-emphasise basic flying skill training in pilot ground training and periodic pilot evaluations


Airline regulators are not alone in warning of the negative effects of automation.  At the at the International Joint Conference in Buenos Aires, in July 2015, a number of high profile proponents of technological innovation such as Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Steve Wozniak, issued a letter warning that artificial intelligence can potentially be more dangerous than nuclear weapons.  Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates recently aligned himself with this position stating that “I am in the camp that is concerned about super intelligence. First the machines will do a lot of jobs for us and not be super intelligent. That should be positive if we manage it well. A few decades after that though the intelligence is strong enough to be a concern. I agree with Elon Musk and some others on this and don’t understand why some people are not concerned.


Whilst automation brings with it many advantages, when some of the biggest proponents and beneficiaries of technology (Hawking would not be able to communicate without it) warn against its unbridled use, it is perhaps time to take stock of its affect on the human condition.


As we continue to surrender basic skills to new technologies (when last did you divide up restaurant bill without the aid of a cell phone calculator?), we need to be mindful of the unintended consequences of such technology.  Research has shown that face to face social interactions and verbal skills have deteriorated as a result of increased use of social media to the extent that Millennials are losing the ability to read facial expressions and are lacking in social skills.


As technology renders manufacturing jobs redundant, workers who lack the education to be absorbed into the growing knowledge and services sectors are becoming a burden on the state welfare institutions.  In South Africa, the problem is made more acute by a dysfunctional education systems which is not able to equip the youth with the skills needed in the South African economy.


The issue of unchecked automation is not new.  The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries brought about major upheavals in the social fabric of many countries as their economies moved rapidly from largely agrarian to manufacturing.  The result of this was that by the mid 19th century, living and working conditions of many had deteriorated to the extent that governments were forced to intervene and pass legislation regulating working and social conditions.


Take 3D printers as an example.  The technology has advanced to the stage that everyday products can now be reproduced from a blue print and even a picture.  Coupled with this is the fact that 3D printers for use in the home are already available and are getting cheaper.  Patent and copyright experts are already grappling with how this will impact companies when their products can be reproduced at home by consumers without reference to them?


At the same time, increased technological proficiency is creating a yearning for products manufactured without its use.  Terms such “handcrafted”, “handmade” and (my personal favourite) “artisanal” are now used to signal superior quality on the basis that that technology has planned little or no part in the manufacture of such products.  The “artisanal” brewer, baker and the candle stick maker are now using methods which pre-dated even the Industrial Revolution.


In the case of the airline industry, the question is having to be asked “what if technology fails?”.  In contrast, the likes of Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates are asking the more disturbing question: “What if it all succeeds?”