Whatever else happens to the business of airlines in 2012, the big issues than can be seen in advance are pilot training, and safety regulation.

Outside Australia, these issues are being fiercely argued in relation to the crash of Air France flight AF447 in the mid Atlantic on 1 June 2009, which killed all 228 people on board an Airbus A332, and the crash of Continental’s Colgan Air contractor airline flight 3407 near Buffalo, which killed all 49 people on the Dash 8 Q400 turboprop and one person in a house on 12 February 2009.

Inside Australia, in so far as there is any discussion at all, the critical events were the successful saving without fatality of a Qantas A333, QF72 in October 2008, and a Qantas A380, QF32 in November 2010, after mid air incidents near Learmonth WA and Singapore respectively, and two Jetstar A320 incidents, both this year, in which each first officer employed by the airline was so incompetent that both were a liability to the captains when they recovered full control of  flights that were making compromised approaches to the Melbourne and Cairns airports in July and November respectively.

(In the link to those Jetstar reports the most important observations were made by the airline itself, as related in the ATSB report into the Melbourne incident,  and in the case of Cairns, where the ATSB refused to investigate, in the internal document that Jetstar read to me!)

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All of these incidents have some technical elements in common, but the overarching issue is that of over reliance on automation to fly aircraft, which has already been identified by Airbus and Boeing as a cause for concern and led to each jet maker issuing explicit warnings to regulators and operators and training providers in various flight safety forums.

This is not a criticism of automation, nor of the different control management processes adopted by Airbus and Boeing, but about how automation is misused, and  how this has degraded the value managements of airlines place on the physical flying skills of pilots and their training in recovering ‘upsets’ or full or partial loss of control in airliners.

There are many closely argued technical discussions of these issues taking place largely outside the scope of popular media. The computer flight management and autopilot systems used in current airliners are so accurate and efficient when everything works as intended that a pervasive view arises that the pilot role is more about supervision than hand flying a jet.

It’s an incorrect conclusion reached for correct reasons. Increased automation has accompanied levels of efficiency, reliability and safety in air transport in general that were considered unachievable 20-25 years ago when some high profile analysts who are still with us argued that growth meant the public had to adjust to a major jumbo sized disaster killing hundreds of people each week from around 2000 onwards.

Automation saves lives. But when something unusual happens to cause an ‘upset’ like the icing of pitots that caused an autopilot disconnection in AF447 (as it was intended to)  and then saw inadequately trained pilots succumbing to what some European media reports termed a panic attack, the airline business has to confront the need to continue investing in excellence in flight standards.

A Qantas 707 pilot’s job was described to me 50 years ago as being about ‘saving a jet’ not flying one. Well before automation, it was recognized almost universally that being able to save a jet with a burning engine, or a mysterious loss of power, or one that was suddenly upside down (or seemed to be) was the real skill that was needed, trained for, and regularly checked or tested.  And that meant knowing so much about how the jet operated, and how its unique electrical systems and hydraulics and aerodynamics worked, that the cause of the upset could be diagnosed and the correct remedy devised and applied, in time to avoid a disaster.

Saving a jet needs to come back into fashion among the bean counters who regard current third party training or type endorsement courses as a way to  competitively force an airlines investment in pilot skills downwards toward parity with interstate bus and truck drivers, or produce indentured labor outcomes.

CASA’s director of safety, John McCormick has already written to all of the airline managements and boards of directors that they can’t in effect, outsource their responsibilities for the outcomes. One could say this is to McCormick’s credit, but that would be ‘too easy’.  He is doing nothing less than what he is paid to do, but it’s encouraging nevertheless to find that CASA is forcing airline executives to recognise personal responsibility for their safety related decisions or choices.

It is also, one hopes, a reminder to Qantas that its investment in pilot training standards is an intangible yet incredibly valuable asset. It wasn’t just two of its Airbuses that found themselves in severe distress in recent years, but two 747-400s, one which had a whole blown in its side with a faulty oxygen bottle, and another in which crap maintenance oversight resulted in endemic drainage faults as identified by the ATSB in many Qantas 747s that ultimately led to an incident in which a really serious electrical failure put another flight which had recently been over Antarctica at risk, but which by chance didn’t ‘go off’ until it was close to Bangkok Airport.

In each case the pilots had little time to try and read through a torrent of computer driven error messages and gave their attention to keeping physical control of the jet based on what controls were compromised, and what they knew from years of experience and upset training to manage the remaining control they had to make safe landings.

It is a fair bet in 2012 that the public administration of air safety for the airlines rather than the public is going to be questioned.  In the US the Federal Aviation Administration has already signaled its discontent over pilot fatigue and competency issues that have in the past been 99% massaged into whatever was seen as driving down costs to airlines.  This includes its embarrassment over a situation in which an FAA inspector failed the captain of the Colgan turbo-prop that crashed three times, only to demote the inspector while the pilot remained flying until one day near Buffalo, close to the ground, he flew into control surface icing and impulsively pulled the nose up, dropping the plane into a housing estate.

Regulators that do airlines such favors are forgetting their obligation to the public, or being stubborn in insisting they have no such duty of care.

In Australia, in the pursuit of international conformity with world’s best practice, CASA has agreed to the removal of life rafts out of the Qantaslink turboprop that flies the exposed oceanic route between Sydney and Lord Howe Island. In the name of regulatory harmonisation.  On a route where there is no competition, and no likelihood of any for years to come.

We have a situation where faulty failure prone Rolls-Royce RB211engines, awaiting modification, are operated on most Qantas 747-400s, despite an alarming upward trend of failures in flight. The reason given is the European Safety regulator, EASA, hasn’t made their replacement the subject of a mandatory airworthiness directive, yet CASA has discretionary powers to do this.

And the fact that neither Australian air safety body has chosen to publicly take action over a situation where Jetstar put a pilot into the right hand seat of an A320 who twice failed to correctly set flap on approach to Cairns airport is deeply troubling.

Here’s to our continuing to be the lucky flying country in 2012!