Do Computers Make Planes Less or More Safe?

How this goal is to be reached remains unclear. It has already become difficult to compensate for the rise in air traffic with an increase in safety. Some experts already see a trend reversal taking place. The number of minor incidents and near-accidents has risen, says the safety expert for a major airline. The rule of thumb is that for every crash or accident involving personal injury, there are hundreds of accidents involving property damage, as well as minor incidents. "And we have detected a rising trend at this lower level," says the insider.

Experts fear that the possibilities for further increasing safety through improved maintenance systems or state-of-the-art collision warning systems have been exhausted. In addition, new safety hazards are emerging, including a more crowded airspace, ruinous competition and, as a result, poor maintenance and training. Finally, the race to computerize aircraft also creates new risks arising from the complexities of the binary chatter of the thousands of computers on board an aircraft.

Part 3: How Much Control Should Remain with the Pilot?

This casts a new light on the question of the role man should play in this system in the future. Safety expert Learmount asks: "How much control should remain with the pilot, when should a computer intervene, and what should the interface between man and computer look like?"

The pilots themselves are calling for a discussion of how their profession sees itself. "We have to turn men and computers into a jointly operating unit," says Nikolaus Braun of the pilots' union Cockpit. More technology, he says, should by no means mean less human presence in the cockpit. On the contrary, pilots become even more necessary as system complexity grows. "Their training has to be improved, not reduced," says Fran Hoyas of the European Cockpit Association (ECA).

Reiner Kemmler, a flight psychologist with Lufthansa for many years, is convinced that technology confronts pilots with new challenges. "Visually speaking, they have reached the limits of what the human sensory perception system can handle," Kemmler warns.

Step by step, man has had to give up control over machines. The first flight computers were introduced in the military. It would be impossible to control today's fighter jets, given their unstable flight behavior, without the help of computers. The military systems later reappeared in the legendary supersonic jet, the Concorde.


Finally, Airbus, still a young aviation company at the time, revolutionized its fleet with an innovative, digital aircraft system that quickly came to be known in the industry as fly-by-wire, and it came with the promise of unprecedented safety. For this reason, writes aviation expert Learmount, it was afflicted from the start with a "psychological side-effect analogous to the talk of the unsinkability of the Titanic." When the A320 took off on its maiden flight in 1987, the unofficial Airbus advertising slogan had already been circulating in the industry for some time: The highest-paid passenger is sitting in the cockpit.

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