TODAY   |  September 17, 2013

Rossen Reports: Do pilots rely too much on automation?

TODAY’s Jeff Rossen investigates the growing concern that airline pilots are relying too much on computers to fly the plane, leaving them unprepared in case of emergency.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> morning, is it possible that some automation in the air is putting your safety at risk. there's growing concern that airline pilots are relying too much on computers to fly the planes leaving them unprepared in an emergency. jeff rossen is here with details on that.

>> i'm a pilot myself. no question about it, automation made flying safer. but they put out a safety report that relying on auto computers could put passengers at risk when something goes wrong in the air.

>> this aircraft was five miles out and all of a sudden we have no response.

>> reporter: february, 2009 , a continental connection flight crashes outside buffalo new york killing 50 people. four months later, an air france jet crashes into the atlantic killing all 228 on board. investigators say in both disasters, the pilots were relying on computers, automation to fly the plane and became confused when something went wrong. today, the auto pilot is so advanced as you're sitting comfortably in your seat, computers are often flying your plane, even landing it right down to the ground.

>> we experienced a malfunction with the auto pilot .

>> reporter: but this new study at the university of iowa is investigating whether automation is making pilots lazy in the cockpit causing them to check out in flight. researchers are testing their reaction times in an emergency. our san francisco nbc affiliate kntb got special access.

>> are pilots becoming too overreliant on automation ?

>> i believe it's safe to say.

>> reporter: that could spell disaster. in 2006 this industry study found a pilot's proficiency in basic flying seems to diminish the more they use automation . sean cassidy is the national safety coordinator for the airline pilot 's association.

>> is that the danger here? something goes wrong, you're there and mentally in the game but if the computer is flying it and something goes wrong, you're sipping a cup of coffee, doing something else, mind isn't there?

>> well, there's two pilots in the flight deck and the other pilot is always there to back up the person assigned the task of flying.

>> reporter: he says automation made flying the safest it's ever been but the faa put out this alert urging pilots to focus on their manual flying skills. and cassidy agrees.

>> we strike a balance. sit perfect? no. could we be better at making sure we're guarding against that? absolutely.

>> just this summer another major airline crash we reported right here of course. asiana flight 214 crashed killing three. now they're investigating whether confusion over automation was a factor in that crash as well. as for the study, researchers say it will take two years to get the final results and no question about it, the faa is eager to see what happens.

>> the vast majority of automation made us safer.

>> yeah i use it all the time. it makes it much much safer, especially getting to specific intersections. everything is much more regulated.