Using AirAsia Flight 8501’s mistakes to prevent future crashes

The black box from AirAsia Flight 8501 provided some answers about what caused the crash, but also opened up questions about automation and why mistakes from past accidents haven’t been corrected. Science correspondent Miles O’Brien joins Gwen Ifill to discuss eerie similarities between AirAsia’s flight and past crashes and why the still-missing Malaysia Airlines flight was declared an accident.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Now an update on aviation stories from around the world.

    In Malaysia, the government has officially declared the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 last March an accident. In Indonesia, investigators now say the co-pilot was in control when AirAsia Flight 8501 crashed into the Java Sea last month. And U.S. officials are reporting a spike in online threats against major airlines.

    I'm joined now by science correspondent Miles O'Brien.

    Let's take these one at a time, Miles.

    Declaring this flight an accident, is that something we kind of knew?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Yes, we did.

    And, really, this is not based on any new information about the investigation. This is more bookkeeping. There are international treaties which require airlines to declare an aircraft missing or an accident or whatever the case may be. And this makes it possible for the victims, for the families to seek redress. And so…

  • GWEN IFILL:

    We should remind people, this has never been found, this particular air…

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    That's correct.

    So, I mean, missing is considered an accident, by technical terms. Here we are approaching the one-year anniversary of this event, and I think that it was time to allow these families to move on and seek their claims.

    And so, meanwhile, the search continues in the Southern Indian Ocean. That will continue until the weather gets too bad, probably in May or so, but we don't know anything new. So when people say it's been declared an accident, remember, it's based on the same information we have had for quite some time.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Now, a big difference with the AirAsia flight, they actually found the plane. They are recovering victims. They even found the black boxes. And now we're beginning to hear that they will able to pin some of the responsibility for what seemed like a very erratic flight path.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Yes, we're getting it out in dribs and drabs, which is unfortunate. It would be nice if it came out in a more systematic way.

    But we do know that the plane somehow stalled. It got into some bad weather, apparently. And when we talk about a stall, an aerodynamic stall, meaning the wind wasn't moving quickly enough over the wings for it to fly. The recovery from the stall is obviously where the problem occurred.

    The first officer was the pilot flying. The captain would have been right there beside him. But the important thing to remember is, when you stall at high altitude, the — there is precious little time to do what needs to be done. You're right at the edge of the performance capability of the aircraft.

    Couple that with the fact that the Airbus is flown largely by computers and human beings manage the systems. And when things go bad, the computer sort of gives up the ghost. It hands the plane over to the human being at a really inopportune time.

    And so one of the things I think we should be looking at here is the relationship between the automation and the computers and the human beings. Is there a good interface in this gray area between the two?

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And we know that this is very similar to a flight we — remember the Air France flight? Was it kind of like that?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Air France 447 is hauntingly similar. And for those of us who follow the aviation industry closely, we don't like to hear that. Accidents should lead to that accident never happening again.

    They say there's — the rules are written in blood, if you will. And it's too bad to see a recurrence, potentially.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And, briefly, this question about new threats, 50 threats in the last month against airlines, is that something that's unusual? Is 50 a lot?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Well, I think — listen, we love the First Amendment. It's what we're all about. You shouldn't yell fire in a crowded theater. Twitter is making it possible for a lot of people and apparently a lot of copycats to do harm.

    And you know what? People can get hurt sliding down those slides, so people should stop and think, and these people who do this should be prosecuted.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So, even if you make a threat, it has got to be investigated, everything has got to be done…

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    You have to do it, yes.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Miles O'Brien, thank you.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    You're welcome, Gwen.

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