Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Simulation and foolish cost-cutting

Wired's Jonah Lehrer has a good post on the use of simulators to train pilots.
According to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal, United/Continental Airlines wants to use less realistic (and less expensive) simulators for many of their pilot training tasks. Instead of simulating the motion and vibrations of the plane, these static training devices are fixed to the ground:

The disagreement within United Continental revolves around using fixed-base simulators—which don’t mimic the movements of planes in flight—rather than full-motion devices to conduct certain types of mandatory, recurrent pilot training.

A decade ago, Continental received Federal Aviation Administration regulatory approval to use such devices, costing roughly one-third less than full-motion simulators, during the last phase of periodic proficiency checks for pilots flying its Boeing Co. 777 fleet. Continental was moving to expand the practice to its Boeing 737 pilots before last year’s merger agreement with United shifted the combined airlines’ focus to integrating all FAA paperwork.

Continental believes its novel approach is superior to traditional practice by stressing human factors and cockpit interaction and thereby enhancing safety. But the position, according to some safety experts, appears to run counter to at least some of the latest guidance coming from parts of the FAA and international standard-setting groups such as the International Civil Aviation Organization, an arm of the United Nations.

“We should be aiming for the greatest possible realism to teach crews how to use both mental skills and motor skills to most effectively deal with emergencies,” according to Mark Rosenker, a former member of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB continues to champion full-motion simulators for recurrent training. Except for cost considerations, Mr. Rosenker said, “why would anyone opt for anything less?”

I can only hope United/Continental has some solid research to support this proposed change, because it strikes me as a bad idea. For starters, there’s no reason to mess with success, even if it saves a few dollars. And modern pilot training is an astonishing success story. Let’s begin with the dismal history: Despite a long list of aviation reforms, from mandatory pilot layovers to increased classroom training, the percentage of crashes due to pilot error refused to budge from 1940 to 1990, holding steady at around 65 percent. It didn’t matter what type of plane was being flown, or where the plane was going. The brute fact remained: Most aviation deaths were due to bad decisions in the cockpit.

According to the latest statistics, however, mistakes by the flight crew are responsible for less than 30 percent of all plane accidents, with a 71 percent reduction in the number of accidents caused by “poor decision-making.” The end result is that flying has become safer than ever. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, flying on a commercial plane has a fatality rate of 0.04 per 100 million passenger miles, making it, by far, the least dangerous form of travel. (Driving, by contrast, has a fatality rate of 0.86.)

What caused the dramatic reduction in pilot error? One widely cited factor is the introduction of highly realistic flight simulators, starting in the mid 1980’s. (The first simulators were put into place during WWII, as the Air Force didn’t have enough real planes to train thousands of new pilots.) For the first time, pilots could practice making decisions in extremely stressful conditions. They could refine their reactions to a sudden downdraft in a thunderstorm, or practice landing with only one engine. They could learn what it’s like to fly without wing flaps, or land on a tarmac glazed with ice. And they could do all this without leaving the ground.

The benefit of a flight simulator is that it allows pilots to internalize their new knowledge. Instead of memorizing lessons on the blackboard, they were forced to exercise emotional regulation, learning how to stay calm and think clearly when bad stuff happens. (I’ve been in these realistic flight simulators and let me assure you – they can be terrifying. After I crashed my jetliner, I left the simulator drenched in sweat, all jangly with adrenaline.) The essential point here is that pilots were the first profession to realize that many of our most important decisions were inherently emotional and instinctive, which is why it was necessary to practice them in an emotional state. If we want those hours of practice to transfer to the real world – and isn’t that the point of practice? – then we have to simulate not just the exterior conditions of the cockpit but the internal mental state of the pilot as well. For far too long, we’ve assumed that expertise is about learning lots of facts, which is why we settled for the “chalk and talk” teaching method. But it’s not. True expertise occurs when we no longer need to reference facts, because we already know what to do.

Needless to say, the potential of simulators goes far beyond pilot training. In recent years, the medical profession has discovered the virtues of virtual reality. Recent studies have found big benefits when medical students use simulators to practice colonoscopies, laparoscopic surgery and even the varied techniques of general surgery. What’s not surprising is that this simulated training was even more effective when it was physically realistic, providing surgeons with “haptic feedback.”

The moral is that we need to make our simulators more realistic, not less. Pilots have pioneered a key concept in professional training. It would be a shame if airlines began to backtrack to save money.

What's notable here is that the cost of the technology behind these simulators has dropped over the past twenty-plus years and will almost certainly drop further over the next twenty, while the potential costs of this change remain high (imagine the legal and reputational consequences when one of these pilots is involved in a crash, even if the official cause is not pilot error).

Unless there's more to this story, shifting to less realistic simulators would seem to be a classic case of cost-cutting that defies cost-analysis. This kind of thing is not hard to find in both the private and public sector. It can usually be attributed to a lack of alignment (the people devising and championing these proposals get their bonuses and promotions almost immediately. By the time true costs become apparent, attrition and short institutional memories will rule out any significant repercussions.*) and to an understandable but dangerous tendency to believe in easy answers.

*Thank God the financial sector is immune to this sort of thing.

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