The head of one of the world's biggest airlines is worried pilots risk being seduced by technology and lose their flying skills as aircraft get more advanced.

Emirates president Sir Tim Clark said while aircraft can theoretically be flown and landed by computers, pilots still needed hands-on training to deal with a range of scenarios.

''I am very concerned about the loss of airmanship skills and I drive it home in Emirates in a very big way so I've increased the training that they do,'' he told the Herald

''Essentially they're good people, they know how to do it but if you seduce them with these unbelievable technological platforms they think they don't have to do much.''


Like other airlines around the world, Emirates has stepped up hands-on training.

''There's an extra day twice a year for manual handling to deal with high level upsets, low speed approaches and departures with difficult situations to try and hone the skills,'' he said.

While flying is getting safer statistically, airlines weren't taking their eye off the ball.

''That would be folly.''

Pilots needed to know how to handle an aircraft in real distress such as the Qantas A380 crippled by an engine explosion shortly after takeoff from Singapore in 2010. It was saved because of the skill of an experienced crew.

''That was seat-of-the-pants airmanship kicking in.''

[Pilots] know how to do it but if you seduce them with these unbelievable technological platforms they think they don't have to do much.

In August, an Emirates Boeing 777 crashed as it tried to abort a landing in high winds at Dubai Airport and how the crew responded to the plane's automatic systems will be part of the investigation.

The issue of over-reliance on automation was highlighted early this year by the US Department of Transportation. It criticised the Federal Aviation Administration for not having in place processes to assess whether airline pilots adequately monitor automated systems on the flight deck or maintain their manual flying skills.


The department's Inspector General noted that several accidents, including the 2013 crash of an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 on landing at San Francisco Airport, "have shown that pilots who typically fly with automation can make errors when confronted with an unexpected event or transitioning to manual flying."

New rules in New Zealand

In this country the Civil Aviation Authority assesses airline operator policies, procedures, and training to ensure the appropriate use of automation in flight operations and the regular maintenance of manual flight skills.

A new rule was introduced this year which requires operators to implement a Safety Management System that includes new requirements for operators to identify safety hazards, manage associated safety risks, and to monitor safety performance.

The authority's deputy director, Air Transport and Airworthiness, Mark Hughes, said the authority considered flight path management and the use of automation to be critical to aviation safety.

He said New Zealand airlines already had programmes in place to ensure automation was used appropriately and that pilots retain manual handling skills.

''These were being continually improved in response to safety data and risk management.''

Rules have also been changed in New Zealand in line with international practice to give the non-flying pilot a monitoring role rather than being passive on the flight deck.

New Zealand Air Line Pilots Association president Tim Robinson said the 2009 crash of an Air France plane off Brazil - where the crew's response to an equipment glitch proved tragic - was a precursor for a shake up.

''It was a wake up call for airlines globally to ask whether their jet pilots in this highly automated world are maintaining their manual flying skills.''

Jet aircraft were typically on autopilot for all but takeoff and landing and they had the ability to land themselves in thick fog if there was not too much wind.

He said the association was satisfied with the training pilots were getting in New Zealand.