In a somewhat surprising conclusion to a study conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), it was recently announced that airplanes equipped with 'glass cockpits', or digitized flight data displays, have not proven to be any safer than planes that operate with conventional, non-digital instrumentation.
The study, which examined over 8,000 single engine planes manufactured between 2002 and 2006, evaluated the accident rates of those planes and determined that the airplanes equipped with the 'glass cockpits' actually had a higher accident fatality rate than similar aircraft that operated with the traditional instruments.
The Board stated that the complexity and lack of uniform use instructions for these 'glass cockpits' overshadow their intended benefits. NTSB Chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman underscored the importance of pilots receiving the proper training required for the safe operation of aircraft equipped with the digital displays. "[T]raining is clearly one of the key components to reducing the accident rate of light planes equipped with glass cockpits," Hersman said while announcing the Board's findings, adding that the study "clearly demonstrates the life and death importance of appropriate training on these complex systems."
Nearly all newly manufactured piston-powered light airplanes contain 'glass cockpits', and older planes are increasingly being retrofitted with them. Common sense dictates that the constant increase and evolution of technology in the transportation world would promote and foster safety in all of the different modes. However, according to Hersman, this is not true for smaller airplanes equipped with 'glass cockpits':
"While the technological innovations and flight management tools that glass cockpit equipped airplanes bring to the general aviation community should reduce the number of fatal accidents, we have not - unfortunately - seen that happen. The data tells us that equipment-specific training will save lives."
Relying on this study, the NTSB made six safety recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).