Are airline pilots basically just good monitors?

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Answer by Thomas Zerbarini:

Pilots need to be good monitors/managers of systems; yet, they need to be good aviators too.
The issue that comes to mind when this question is asked revolves around automation and flight automation and aircraft control philosophy.
The two major manfacturers of commercial aircraft (Boeing and Airbus) have completely different philosophy's when it comes to automation:
“Boeing flight decks are designed to provide automation to assist, but not replace, the flight crew member responsible for safe operation of the airplane.” — Boeing
“All aircraft have physical limits that they must not exceed… These limits define the flight envelope, not to be exceeded during normal operation.” —Airbus
Basically, Boeing allows a pilot full flight control authority to meet any need the pilot deems necessary to handle any emergency. Airbus places hard limits and will not allow the pilot to exceed any hard envelope.
Here's an article for a good overview of the philosophy differences between the two manufactures:
I personally agree with the Boeing philosophy and find that there seems to be issues lately with too much automation. When humans rely on too much automation, there is the possibility for complacency. When automation does something unexpected or misunderstood by the pilots; and, when the other pilot does something unexpected or unknown by the other pilot (AF 447, no side stick feedback.)
Or the new Airbus A350 that embarrassingly self aborted on a media flight from JFK to Dubai.
And of course the Boeing 777 crash in San Fransisco where the pilots relied on automation to control their speed and did not realize the auto-throttles were off.
Here is a more complete bullet list of each manufacturers philosophy. I included McDonald Douglas from the 80's even though it is now merged with Boeing.
Airbus' Philosophy on Automation
  • Automation must not reduce overall aircraft reliability; it should enhance aircraft and systems safety, efficiency and economy.
  • Automation must not lead the aircraft out of the safe flight envelope to its full extent, should this be necessary due to extraordinary circumstances.
  • Automation should allow the operator to use the safe flight envelope to its full extent, should this be necessary due to extraordinary circumstances.
  • Within the normal flight envelope, the automation must not work against operator inputs, except when absolutely necessary for safety.
Boeing's Flight Deck Automation Philosophy
  • The pilot is the final authority for the operation of the airplane.
  • Both crew members are ultimately responsible for the safe conduct of the flight.
  • Flight crew tasks, in order of priority, are: safety, passenger comfort, and efficiency.
  • Design for crew operations based on pilot's past training and operational experience.
  • Design systems to be error tolerant.
  • The hierarchy of design alternatives is: simplicity, redundancy, and automation.
  • Apply automation as a tool to aid, not replace, the pilot.
  • Address fundamental human strengths, limitations, and individual differences-for both normal and non-normal operations.
  • Use new technologies and functional capabilities only when:
  • They result in clear and distinct operational or efficiency advantages, and
  • There is no adverse effect to the human-machine interface.
  • Uses technology to assist the pilot naturally, while giving the pilot the final authority to override the computer and use skill and experience.
Thomas Zerebarini

Are airline pilots basically just good monitors?


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