By ANDY PASZTOR
May 27, 2006; Page A4
European jet maker Airbus is taking an unprecedented
step to expand cockpit automation: onboard computers that will automatically maneuver
jetliners to avoid midair collisions, without any pilot input.
for its pioneering use of computers and software to push the automation envelope,
this time Airbus has decided to cross a new threshold in replacing pilot decisions
with computer commands. For the first time, flight crews of Airbus planes will be instructed and trained to rely on autopilots
in most cases to escape an impending crash with another airborne aircraft. Currently,
all commercial pilots are required to instantly disconnect the autopilot when
they get an alert of such an emergency, and manually put their plane into a climb
or descent to avoid the other aircraft.
The change, which
hasn't been announced yet, comes after lengthy internal Airbus debates and despite
skepticism from pilot groups and even some aircraft-equipment suppliers.
spite of significant pilot opposition, the proposed shift sets the stage for broader
use of computerized safety systems down the road to protect commercial planes,
business jets and other aircraft from other hazards, including flying into natural
or man-made obstacles.
Airbus, a unit of
European Aeronautic Defence & Space Co. and
BAE Systems PLC, plans to start installing the computerized systems on its
A380 superjumbo jets perhaps as soon as next year, pending regulatory approvals.
It intends to gradually install them on all other Airbus aircraft, including retrofits
for older models.
The proposed systems will ensure that all
aircraft "respond correctly and quickly" to alerts with "less stress
on the pilot [and] less potential for injury" to passengers, said Bill Bozin,
a top Airbus safety official. He said some pilots now overreact to such cockpit
alerts, making extreme maneuvers that can throw passengers around, and in congested
airspace even end up putting the aircraft on a collision course with still other
nearby planes. In rare circumstances, pilots would retain the option of turning
off the autopilot and responding on their own.
passenger probably won't notice any difference in an emergency, but the concept
already is prompting a fair bit of controversy in aviation circles. Larry Newman,
a top safety official with the Air Line Pilots Association, said his group is
wary because "this tends to lead to getting the pilot further and further
away from the process" of responding to emergencies.
design approach used by Airbus -- essentially trusting computers to react faster
and more predictably than humans to midair alerts and then revert to normal flight
-- is in stark contrast to
Boeing Co.'s approach of relying on pilot judgment in all emergencies. Before
Airbus publicly talked about its decision, Scott Pelton, Boeing's chief engineer
for electronic systems on jetliners, said Boeing would remain "aligned with
our fundamental philosophy," which "believes the captain is in charge."
to Andy Pasztor at email@example.com