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Progress or problem? Why having ‘capable’ technology isn’t enough in the cockpit.

by Nancy Jackson BALPA Communications and External Relations Manager

In a recent interview in The Sunday Times, Airbus Chief Executive of Commercial Aircraft, Christian Scherer (behind a paywall), hailed the development of technology that could enable planes to be flown with just one pilot as progress and suggested it was almost inevitable.

BALPA’s response

This rhetoric raises serious concern for the British Airline Pilots’ Association on many levels. Scherer not only failed to describe whether there is any need for such technology, but more importantly he has not answered the question of if it can be done safely, let alone with an increase in safety which any paradigm shift of this magnitude should demonstrate as a minimum prerequisite. The comments in The Sunday Times Newspaper seem out of touch with current safety debate, with what is really commercially needed in the industry and with what passengers want. The tone, with its reference to ‘one man’ operations also hit a dud note within an industry that is trying to improve diversity.

For pilots, safety is always the number one priority. Every part of the aviation system is designed with safety in mind and that’s why flying is such a safe way to travel. We have two pilots at the controls because that is the safest way to fly. And it is not just for those emergencies when one pilot is taken ill or is unable to fly. Even under ‘normal’ circumstances, two pilots are there to crosscheck, to work together and to manage the onboard technology because safety starts with two.

Portraying this as an opportunity to enrich the pilot role as a “mission manager” is misleading. Pilots already have such a role in planning, anticipating, and adapting to operational challenges and their effectiveness in this role is optimised by being part of a team – just the same as in any other profession. Can you imagine a single surgeon in the operating theatre?

The idea that just because we can do it, we should do it, is worrying

Over the years we have seen new technology come in and change the way we fly. But these developments come with safeguards and protections and as pilots we push to  always ensure that there is no potential single point of failure. For example, the introduction of fly by wire controls referred to in the article is accompanied by multiple redundant systems to provide the necessary system resilience.

And the analogy of reducing the number of engines over time as propulsion technology has become more reliable is also misleading – a single engine for large commercial air transport aircraft would not be accepted by safety regulators.

Technology is not infallible

Anyone who has witnessed the circle of doom while booting up a computer will know that technology is not infallible. In a safety critical environment, the assumption that it is could be catastrophic.

In recent years there have been numerous examples of technology gone bad, not just in aviation but in many different industries.

For example, the well documented issues associated with the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) flight control law on the Boeing 737 MAX and how two coincidentally identical waypoint names managed to stump the UK air traffic control system. Not to forget driverless cars that crash or smart motorways that fail. All these incidents highlight clearly the fact that even the most sophisticated technology can go wrong.

It is not clear however that a reduction in pilot numbers is the commercial win that the interview implies. With public perception of flight safety at a low, would the public really want to fly on aircraft with one or no pilots?

While we may have the technology, we are nowhere near having a system that is proven to be as safe or safer than with two pilots at the controls. Automation is only as good as it is programmed to be and no technology has the ability to problem solve like a human, particularly in decision making around complex and emergency scenarios.

The role of the pilot

Over reliance on technology also neglects to recognise the benefit of the pilot in terms of ‘every day’ flight safety. For too long safety analysis has looked at the outcome of accidents and NOT at the interventions made on every successful flight by a pilot. To illustrate this more explicitly, a NASA study[1] estimated that for every time a pilot makes an error that contributes to an accident, other pilots intervene approximately 157,000 times to keep flights safe. Given that this statistic only relates to aircraft malfunctions, the actual successful intervention rate is likely to be far higher.

Overall, this article has raised many more questions than it has answered. Technology can be a good thing, when developed to enhance the performance of a human being, so the two can work in harmony to improve both safety and efficiency. This should be the goal – not replacing humans.

Read more about BALPA’s position on Reduced Crew Operations:

Reduced Crew Operations: #SafetyStartsWith2


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