Pilot errors down despite looming troubles

Perhaps it is better onboard technology, or maybe it’s better trained personnel but pilot error is much less of a factor in US airliner crashes now than it was in the early 1980s, a new study says.

While the overall rate of airline mishaps remained stable, the proportion of mishaps involving pilot error decreased 40% said researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The report was issued before NASA yesterday released partial results of a massive air-safety survey of airline pilots who repeatedly complained about fatigue, problems with air-traffic controllers, airport security, and the layouts of runways and taxiways.  According to a Washington Post article, NASA released a heavily redacted version of the survey on its Web site after the agency heard tons of criticism about its initial decision to withholding of the results last month for fear of harming airlines' bottom lines.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin told reporters in a conference call that the agency had no plans to study the database for trends. He said NASA conducted the survey only to determine whether gathering information from pilots in such a way was worthwhile.  The NASA database, which included more than 10,000 pages of information, was based on extensive telephone polling of airline and general aviation pilots about incidents ranging from engine failures and bird strikes to fires onboard planes and encounters with severe turbulence.

Meanwhile, the Johns Hopkins study examined 558 airline mishaps between 1983 and 2002. The researchers also looked at the circumstances of pilot error, which they characterized as carelessness on the part of the pilot and crew, flawed decision-making, mishandling of the aircraft or poor crew interaction.

The researchers classified a mishap as being any U.S. airline safety event that the NTSB officially recorded as an accident, because it involved serious injury to one or more persons or significant damage to an airliner. It is likely that the reduction in pilot errors has continued since 2002, experts said though there have been accidents linked to pilot error since.   Last year's Comair crash at Lexington, Ky. That killed  49 people was attributed to pilot error.

Other key findings of the study included:

·          Mishaps related to bad weather—the most common decision-making error—dropped 76 %.

·          Mishaps caused by mishandling wind or runway conditions declined 78 %.

·          Mishaps caused by poor crew interaction declined 68 %.

·          Pilot error was most common during taxiing, takeoff, final approach and landing of the aircraft. ·          The mishap rate increased the most when aircraft were being pushed back from the gate or standing still, but pilot error was least common in such mishaps.

·          Mishaps during takeoff declined 70 %. While the overall rate of pilot error mishaps declined, the reductions were offset by increases in mishaps that did not involve error by pilots; some involved errors by air traffic control or ground crews. The researchers also noted that there is a need to improve safety during the times when the aircraft is motionless on the ground or being pushed back from the gate. The study found that mishaps during these times more than doubled from a rate of 2.5 to 6 mishaps per 10 million flights.

The findings are published in the January 2007 edition of Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine

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