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Aviation Industry Analyst Discusses Indonesian Air Crash


Investigators in Indonesia are still looking into last month's Lion Air crash. The plane, a Boeing 737 Max, crashed into the Java Sea, killing all 189 people on board. Investigators are examining among other things one of the plane's automated safety systems. Pilots here in the U.S. are also concerned about it, with some saying Boeing has not provided enough information or training about the system.

To talk more, we have reached Richard Aboulafia. He's an aviation industry analyst with the Teal Group. And he's consulted with Boeing in the past as well as with other aircraft manufacturers. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

RICHARD ABOULAFIA: My pleasure to be here.

KELLY: What is your sense - understanding that investigations are, of course, ongoing - but from what you know so far, what seems to have caused this tragedy?

ABOULAFIA: You know, it takes a combination of factors to produce a tragedy like this. It's never a single cause, certainly not this case. There was a faulty sensor providing faulty readings. It sounds like procedures weren't followed correctly on the ground and in the air. And then this automated system may or may not have played a contributing role, but only because those procedures weren't followed.

KELLY: And what is the contributing role that it may have played? Describe what may have happened on this plane.

ABOULAFIA: Well, it sounds like the faulty data was pushing the system to push the nose down. This had happened the previous day, and they simply overrode it. And basically, there are relatively easy override procedures. Were they correctly followed? That's a big question mark.

KELLY: Who is responsible for training with new technology such as this? Is it Boeing? Is it the airline? Is it the pilot unions?

ABOULAFIA: Yeah, it's a combination. You know, basically Boeing has to provide the guidance on how to train people. And there are some pilots who've said they did, and some said, no, not completely. That's going to be something that people look into. And then, of course, the airlines and any training academies, whatever, provide the training on the basis of technical information from Boeing.

KELLY: I mean, the conundrum here seems to boil down to that this automated system was put in place to correct for pilot error, but the pilots flying the plane perhaps didn't know how to correct for automation error. Do we risk more tragedies like this as flying, like everything else in our lives, becomes more and more and more automated?

ABOULAFIA: You know, I think there's going to be a healthy debate about automation as a result of this. But I think it's frankly more important to talk about training and procedures. And maybe it came from the manufacturer. Maybe there wasn't a proper level of communication. Maybe it came from the airline, a lack of training. There's all sorts of possibilities here.

KELLY: This does prompt the question, though - as flights, again, become more and more automated, are pilots losing some of the basic skills that they would have been expected to have a generation or so ago?

ABOULAFIA: You know, I think this is a legitimate area of concern because even though pilots are very well-trained, the level of training that used to be part of the job isn't completely 100 percent there anymore just because so much of the work is done by computers.

It certainly hasn't shown up in the numbers. Things are getting safer and safer each year, to the point where flying by air makes traveling by car look like an active suicide by comparison. But nevertheless, it's important to make sure that the level of training stays high and that the basic skills of piloting aren't forgotten.

KELLY: So what are you watching for next as we try to piece together what happened and how for it not to happen going forward?

ABOULAFIA: You know, it would be good to get in the cockpit voice recorder. That might clarify, was it confusion? Was it a training issue? The place where we're probably going to learn the most is how people work together in - especially in times of crisis. So if you accept that automation is inevitable - because, frankly, it has saved a lot of lives, and it's an accepted part of aircraft design - then it really comes down to that interface between people and machine. And that's where we're going to learn some lessons here.

KELLY: Richard Aboulafia - he's an analyst with the aviation research firm the Teal Group. Thanks very much.

ABOULAFIA: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF LRKR'S "CHILEAN SUNSET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.