How much airline safety is luck?


If you look at the statistics for fatal airline accidents in 2017, the year looked faultless.

There were no fatal accidents – at least not among the mainline carriers operating passenger jets.

But if you look at the number of near-disasters, and especially if you hear the accounts of what happened on board and imagine the trauma the survivors underwent, you might wonder what made the difference between the mishaps they survived and fatal crashes in recent years that had almost identical precursors.

The answer is luck. Not a scientific answer, but it is the only word in the English language that describes that difference. A study Flight International/FlightGlobal will shortly publish (Flight International issue 23-29 January) contains an analysis of how luck works in today’s air travel.

Giving detail of numerous recent near-disastrous mishaps, the report observes:  “Sometimes these mishaps start with a technical problem, but more often they are the result of inadequate crew knowledge, poor procedural discipline or simple human carelessness.”

Many of them ended up as that most common of all airline accidents, runway excursions or overruns on landing, and the result is usually serious and very expensive damage.

Pegasus Airlines at Trabzon, Turkey, 13 January (Twitter World News)

The spectrum of industry discussion about how to deal with this “luck” factor includes – at one end of the scale – automating pilots and their fallibilities out of the picture, and at the other end imbuing today’s crews with a quality referred to as “resilience”. The latter is the ability to face a surprising or unforeseen combination of circumstances with cool logic based on knowledge, situational awareness and skill. That’s what most passengers assume all pilots have.

Airline pilots today are firmly discouraged by their employers from disconnecting the autopilot and autothrottle during revenue flights. There are good reasons for this, the most obvious being that the automation – properly programmed – flies the aircraft more accurately than most pilots can. The argument against it is that if the automation is wrongly programmed, or used  unintentionally in the wrong mode, or suffers a rare failure, the pilot reaction to the unintended consequences frequently demonstrates a lack of “resilience”, setting off a chain of events that can lead to an accident.

The question is, if pilots were permitted to fly their aircraft manually more often during revenue passenger flights, would their manual flying and associated cognitive skills be better primed for the unexpected, making a resilient response more likely when things don’t go according to plan? Pilot organisations like IFALPA believe they would.

To many airlines, that idea is heresy. Letting pilots “practice” flying with passengers on board is just not acceptable, they argue. “Practicing” (what pilots call flying) should only take place in a simulator or an empty aeroplane, they maintain.

The main problem with simulators is that, although getting better all the time, they will – psychologically – be no preparation for the real environment. The sense of risk, or fear, and the stress generated by it, can never be replicated in a simulator.

The reason aeroplanes have not been even more automated than they have been so far is that most flights don’t happen exactly as planned, so the pilots have frequently to intervene to make decisions and adjust the trajectory, even if they use the automation to do it.

This is a discussion that will – and should – continue, and the existing polarisation of views also seems likely to persist.

What is really needed is a cost-benefit and risk examination of whether the regular employment of manual and traditional pilot cognitive skills in flight has net advantages or disadvantages for airlines, but such research has never been carried out.

The ideal institution to do it would be the Institut Supérieur de l’Aéronautique et de l’Espace in Toulouse , which has expertise in measuring neuro-ergonomics in working pilots. ISAE has successfully carried out studies of the effect of stress on pilot cognitive and manual skills, and tested ways of re-orienting pilots when they lose situational awareness.


7 thoughts on “How much airline safety is luck?

  1. According to a B-744 friend: The Pegasus F/O was PF, Wx was at minimums. They were expecting to see the runway at minimums. At minimums they saw the runway, the F/O disengaged the autopilot but at the same time he pressed the TOGA buttons. Captain took over and lowered the nose and retarded both thrust levers to idle, they landed at idle thrust and aircraft was dispatched with one reverser inop. Captain deployed the thrust reverser of the left engine and released the right engine (always best to pull both op or inop reversers to mitigate this type of TAM A-320-like T/R mishap/disaster of São Paulo’s 35L of July 17, 2007). Since he hadn’t disconnected the auto throttle; the right engine went to TOGA thrust; the aircraft started to accelerate and skidded off the runway from the left, with right engine separation. All passengers evacuated the aircraft from the rear door. No smoke in the cabin and no injuries. Unlucky, but lucky to avoid the drink of a Black Sea immersion.


  2. It seems that the statement ” no fatal accident” is incorrect as the ATR that crashed in Fond-du-Lac (Canada) killed one. Not directly from the crash but few days after as this passenger was severely injured.


    • You are quite correct about the death caused by that accident, but if you look at the qualifying statement it says “There were no fatal accidents – at least not among the mainline carriers operating passenger jets”. This is a turbo-prop. You could accuse me of splitting hairs, but the overall message is that fatalities in all types of operation are at a record low, but the number of near disasters is still high, so we shouldn’t forget that risks still lurk.


  3. Not all airlines are opposed to manual flying during revenue flights. My employer (US Major A3201/321 and E-190 operator) has begun actively encouraging manual flight when conditions are appropriate and our sim sessions now routinely check us on flying with all the automation turned off. My sense is at least in the US the FAA is pushing airlines to ensure their pilots are not becoming automation dependent.


    • Thanks for pointing that out. But America is unusual in this respect, and a lot more flying in US airspace is under VFR, whereas in all controlled airspace in Europe IFR applies at all times. That doesn’t stop pilots flying manually, but the psychology is completely different. And Europe has a much denser population per unit area, with less distance between major hubs, so the airlines have a completely different attitude to how operations should be conducted. In my opinion, the USA has the balance right, but that’s just me.


      • I happen to agree with you that in the US we are striking a good balance.

        It hasn’t always been that way and is the result of lessons learned and the FAA pushing manual flying skills. It wasn’t that long ago in the US the some US majors forbid turning the autothrust off (for example) except in an emergency.


  4. The problem with automating fallibility out of the system is that designers are faced with the probabilistically indeterminate task of anticipating every single possible outcome – an utterly unachievable outcome. Therefore, tombstone automation will continue to be the norm. Situational awareness is severely hampered by strong and silent automation. High levels of autonomy and authority inevitably lead to the automation being a very poor team player – simply revisit AF447. “Luck” is premised upon complexity – that is the interactions between the pilots and the automation. However, when the automation changes the state of an aircraft without giving the pilots the requisite information – the complexity of the system changes without the pilots being aware of what has transpired (again see AF447). This is where ‘luck” runs out – the inevitable black swan event; that is, unanticipated complexity leads to a low risk + high consequence event. The “solution” – simply increase the levels of automation – creating further opportunities for black swan events! The other solution that is often muted – increase pilot training. However, this effectively means that we are continuing to shape pilots around pre-existing and perhaps misguided beliefs about automation. Perhaps its is high time to look at what we SHOULD automate rather than what we CAN automate…


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