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Would airliners be safer without pilots? No, says NTSB chairman


Christopher Hart argues that 'human pilots are still crucial.'

In aviation circles, there is a running debate about a proposal that sounds radical, but—beyond the public perception problems that would be associated with it—isn’t so far-fetched: remove the pilots from the cockpit of airliners.

After all, the thinking goes, pilot error is the leading cause of aircraft crashes. Take the humans off the flight deck and human error is no longer a factor. In any case, the argument for pilotless cockpits goes, computers are already flying the aircraft most of the time a modern airliner is in the air.

US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) chairman Christopher Hart addressed the issue of pilotless commercial aircraft today in a very public way at the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) Air Safety Forum in Washington DC, a sign to me that—in the age of self-driving cars and with a looming pilot shortage getting a lot of attention—this is no longer a fringe debate. “The good news is there’s automation” in aviation, Hart said in the opening of a luncheon address, before adding, “The bad news is there’s automation.”

Hart argued that “human pilots are still crucial to the process,” but he acknowledged that the level of automation in the modern cockpit creates challenges. A car, train or aircraft that is completely automated or completely manual is “unambiguous,” he said. If it is all one or the other, “you know who’s in charge,” he explained.

But it becomes more complicated when there is a combination of automation and manual control, which is the case in modern airliners.

“The more the pilots become accustomed to automated safety, the more it takes to keep pilots engaged,” Hart said. “In other words, there can be too much of a good thing.” Could pilots become bored or even unprofessional if their workload is reduced to a minimum, Hart asked, citing the example of subway operators whose only job is to open and close doors on trains that are operated completely by automation.

Engaged humans are needed in the cockpit because automation can fail, and it may fail in a way that seriously compromises safety, Hart stated. “On the one hand, the human operator is the least predictable part of the system,” he said. “But the human also is the most adaptable part of the system.”

This ability to adapt on the fly can save lives, Hart said, citing the famous US Airways flight 1549 landing on the Hudson River in 2009. “The challenge is how to reap the benefits of the automation while minimizing its downsides,” Hart said, adding, “Will airliners ever be completely automated? Accidents such as the landing on the Hudson are the reason why, in my view, we won’t see complete automation in the airline industry for some time.”

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