The rage of a pilot against the machines
When I was a young kid in Minnesota, before I fell in love with airplanes, I had a deep obsession with trains and wanted to work on a railroad. Then my late grandfather inadvertently crushed my dreams with a throwaway comment about how he rarely sees caboose anymore. It was true: automation was eliminating firefighter and brakeman jobs, reducing the traditional five-man train crew to two. My disappointment did not last long, as I quickly transferred my affections to all things aviation. The presumption in the back of my young brain was that planes didn’t run on rails and would be much harder to automate.
Of course, they had already been. Radio operators and navigators had been banished from the cockpit long before I was born, and although there were plenty of flight engineers working at the time, their eventual extinction had been heralded by the Douglas DC-9 and the Boeing 737. Still, I guess my childish calculation held up pretty well. I’m 41 now, and with 24 years to go, I don’t foresee my job being automated until then.
But what about the next generation, teenagers or young people in their twenties, who are now deciding to get into aviation? I have often been asked this question. My usual answer is that those starting today are definitely at a greater risk of having their work automated, but nothing is set in stone. Replacing pilots in transport aircraft faces significant technical, security and political hurdles, and the question may well be decided by how current pilots respond to the threat.
What is the threat?
Unmanned aircraft represent the most extreme case of aerial automation and are indeed already ubiquitous in military and amateur/light commercial applications. Technological innovation has turned something as naturally unstable and difficult to fly as a quadcopter into child’s play. Commercial aerial photography is now done almost exclusively by drones, and drones are also turning to other traditional light aircraft applications like traffic surveillance, fire and pipeline patrol, and fish detection. Aerial application (cropdusting) will be another natural specialty of drones, once they get a little bigger. There has been a lot of press about express parcel delivery by drone, and I think they will be useful for low-weight, high-value, and time-sensitive shipments.
But I am extremely skeptical of civilian unmanned aircraft over a few thousand pounds, because of the serious safety and security ramifications. A datalink-controlled airliner is a non-starter; the ability to remotely take control of large, fuel-laden aircraft would be the ultimate terrorist weapon for rogue state or non-state actors. Even the Pentagon is regularly hacked; they store their most sensitive material on isolated computers and networks (e.g., not connected to anything outside). An equivalent “vacuum” unmanned airliner would be controlled solely by on-board computers and rely entirely on external sensors and signals vulnerable to jamming or spoofing. I think that would require a level of artificial intelligence that’s still three or four decades away.
Yes, yes, I know: Garmin Autoland. It’s a great tool for a very specific, albeit simplistic, emergency – the critical nature of a single pilot’s incapacitation doesn’t require many decisions other than “where is the nearest runway and how do I m ‘get there without hitting rocks?’ This is far from the processing power required for fully autonomous operation from pushback to landing under normal conditions, let alone in unforeseen emergencies. How, exactly, do you program a Sully? I’m not saying it won’t happen, it’s just a long way to go and it will be in the hands of technology that renders humans useless for 90% of the tasks they currently perform.
The most realistic threat is that of single-crew operations. This is currently being worked on by several teams in the aerospace industry. The initial decision is to eliminate reinforced crews on long-haul flights by rotating the remaining two pilots for cruise rest, leaving one person at the controls for most of the flight. Airbus is the most advanced in this area with its “Project Connect”, which aims to implement single-pilot cruise operations on Cathay Pacific’s A350s by 2025. Technological obstacles are not significant; the challenge is to convince the world’s aviation regulators to play ball. If they do, however, I think you’ll see a strong push for single-pilot takeoff-to-touchdown operations on new transport-category aircraft designs within a decade. This will be done first on cargo planes, then on passenger planes starting with the less than 100 seats and going up from there.
There is, however, a logical paradox in single-pilot operations. This is only possible with automation that monitors driver errors and intervenes if necessary. However, if the automation is not secure and reliable enough to unmanned operations, you should always give the man the ultimate veto. And this authority can be abused.
Security for all?
I will be frank on a taboo subject. Pilot suicides happen. They happen quite regularly, in fact, though most often not on planes, almost never with passengers, and least often on airliners. Still, GermanWings 9525, EgyptAir 990, SilkAir 185 and LAM Mozambique 470 did it happen (The Malaysia 370 probably also belongs to this list). It is extremely instructive, in my opinion, that in at least three and possibly four of these cases, the suicidal pilot did not act until his counterpart had left the cockpit. For this reason, most airlines now require two people to be on the flight deck at all times. Now are we going to go the opposite direction and leave one person on the flight deck for most or all of the flight? How, exactly, do airlines plan to actively monitor the mental health and religious and political views of thousands of pilots? Oh, did I mention that all of those pilots will experience tremendous job stress as a result of eliminating half of the flying jobs?
I really wonder who is behind all this, and why. It’s not for security. Airlines have already achieved an incredibly low accident rate – yes, with the help of automation – as the few remaining air accidents are usually caused by overconfidence about automation and the mishandling of automation failures. Profit would be the natural motive, but honestly, pilot spend is already a pretty small portion of the transport category’s operating costs, and eliminating co-pilots will only save 3-5% with a considerable additional risk. Yes, there is a short-term pilot supply problem, but it is a self-correcting problem as people are signing up for flight training in record numbers. It is much faster, easier and cheaper to turn humans into pilots than to turn computers into pilots.
But there’s this huge modern push to get rid of loud, messy, bickering humans as much as possible, push us all into service jobs, and let the machines take care of the rest.
Where, exactly, does it all end?
With an AI doing everything worth doing, 100 guys to own it all, and 20 billion poor people to fight for the scraps? Why aren’t we having a serious conversation about what level of automation is best for us as a species? I realize I’m screaming in a hurricane here. I refuse to use automated ordering kiosks and self-checkouts – “first they came for your job, then they’ll come for mine” – and my annoyed wife points out that my intransigence simply shortens the queue for these machines and makes them all the more attractive.
So be it. I accept that my Luddite instincts won’t change humanity’s headlong rush to replace itself one iota. But I can certainly slow down the process within my own industry. The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) and other pilot unions have seen the threat posed by the surge in single-crew operations and are preparing for combat. Currently, the ALPA is embarking on a public relations campaign (under the ill-fated slogan “Pilots are more than ready”), and they are beginning to lobby the FAA, Congress, the Canadian Parliament, ICAO and others. other institutions to prohibit single piloting. cruise operations. If that effort fails, I see a time coming when far more drastic action is needed, and the pilots must simply refuse, en masse, to cooperate in our own replacement.
The global economy is entirely dependent on our services and, as always, we hold the power of the parking brake. It’s not a very pleasant thought, but it’s definitely something to consider if you’re a youngster investing heavily in training for a 40+ career.