Airline pilots have lost flying skills as automation takes over mundane tasks and may be startled when systems don't behave as expected, which have contributed to crashes, a government and industry report concluded.

Airlines need to improve pilot training in autopilots and other automation in the cockpit, the report obtained by Bloomberg News said.

The issue is growing in importance as the United States installs a $42-billion satellite-based navigation system known as NextGen, the report, commissioned by the Federal Aviation Administration, found.

"There are times when the airplane will do something that's unexpected and the pilots will go, 'Why did it just do that?' " Patrick Veillette, who wrote his PhD thesis on cockpit automation, said.

Auto-throttles, computer navigation and other automation have improved safety, said Veillette, who wasn't part of the report. Airline safety is at an all-time high, according to accident statistics.

The downside is that the new technologies may be programmed incorrectly more than previous systems and are so complex that pilots don't always understand their actions, Veillette said.

The findings were reported earlier in The Wall Street Journal.

Some recent accidents not considered in the report, including the Feb. 12, 2009, crash of a turboprop approaching Buffalo, operated by Pinnacle Airlines Corp.'s former Colgan unit, are related to how pilots are trained on automation, Veillette said. Fifty people were killed, including all 49 on the plane.

A pilot on an Asiana Airlines plane that struck a seawall while attempting to land in San Francisco July 6 said he thought the plane's auto throttle was maintaining speed, the NTSB said after the accident. The Boeing 777 had slowed to almost 40 mph below its target speed before losing altitude and striking the seawall. The NTSB hasn't yet concluded what caused the accident. -- Bloomberg News

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