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Airline pilots depend too much on automation, says panel commissioned by FAA

A new FAA report to be released later this week warns of "automation addiction" and calls on airlines to reinforce basic flying skills. NBC's Tom Costello reports.

Commercial airline pilots rely too much on automation in the cockpit and are losing basic flying skills, warns a new Federal Aviation Administration report due out this week.

And so-called “automation addiction,” endemic in the highly automated fight cockpits of today's high-tech commercial airlines, could pose safety risks, experts say.

“Pilots sometimes rely too much on automated systems," says the report, which was written by an outside panel of experts.

And some pilots “lack sufficient or in-depth knowledge and skills” to properly control their plane’s trajectory, the report states.

Basic piloting errors are thought to have contributed to the crash of an Air France Airbus A330 plane over the Atlantic in 2009, which killed all 228 aboard, as well as a commuter plane crash in Buffalo, N.Y., that same year.

Potential piloting errors are also under investigation in connection with the Asiana Airlines crash at San Francisco's airport this summer. 

Capt. Karen Kahn, who's been a pilot at a major U.S. airline for 36 years, said she worries that some younger pilots are relying too heavily on auto-pilot systems. 

"We are a little bit wary, which I think is a good thing" she said of the computerized controls as someone who started flying in manual mode and later moved to automation. "We recognize that in the end we have to fly the airplane." 

“It's there to help you,” she said of auto-pilot. "It’s not the actual commander of the airplane, you are! So you need to use it as an adjunct. It's like another crew member helping you, but it's not the be all end all."

Tom Casey, a retired airline pilot who flew the giant Boeing 777, said he once kept track of how rarely he had to touch the controls on an auto-pilot flight from New York to London.

From takeoff to landing, he said he only had to touch the controls seven times.

"There were seven moments when I actually touched the airplane — and the plane flew beautifully,” he said. “Now that is being in command of a system, of wonderful computers that do a great job — but that isn’t flying."

“It’s no longer in the interest of safety, mainly because training protocols have shifted their emphasis from airmanship to computer technology,” Casey said.

Real flying, said Casey, was exemplified by Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, who famously landed his US Airways plane without engines on the Hudson River and saved all the passengers in what came to be known as the “Miracle on the Hudson.”

The new report calls for more manual flying by pilots — in the cockpit and in simulations.

Nearly all people connected to the aviation industry agree that automation has helped to dramatically improve airline safety over the past 30 years, but now even the FAA and the pilots union agree that pilots need to avoid “automation addiction” and keep their manual flying skills fresh.

The 200-plus page report, commissioned by the FAA and written by industry, labor, academic and government experts, is expected to be released at a meeting of industry representatives by FAA Administrator Michael Huerta on Thursday.

In advance of that meeting, the FAA issued a statement to NBC News:

“The FAA has made advances in pilot manual flying skills, improved pilot certification standards, advanced pilot training program requirements and more, and today's report validates those efforts.”

The FAA said the agency and industry representatives will work on next steps to make training programs stronger in the interest of safety.

Jeff Black of NBC News contributed to this report.