Saturday, September 11, 2010

Pilotless planes

Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary recently commented that there is no need of co-pilots in the current sophisticated as well as automated airplanes, and hence suggested we get rid of them to save costs. He also suggested that every flight would have a flight attendant trained in flying the plane and could take over in case of an emergency. He did get a lot of press for his comments.

What a great idea. Of course, the pilots' association snubbed it.

I assume Michael O'Leary has never flown a plane, especially a jet plane. Maybe, he doesn't even understand the roles of a pilot or a co-pilot. Even if he pilots a small plane, he will learn about the number of things a pilot needs to keep track of. Flying a plane is relatively easy, but what makes it tough is all the small things that need to be done: communications, reading charts, reading and interpreting the multitude of instruments (have you seen the instrument panel on a Boeing?), making quick decisions in tough conditions, etc. All this on top of flying the plane. In fact, just flying a plane in the sim tells you a lot about how complicated it is (my barebones flight sim setup pic above).

Redundancy is the name of the game here.

It is not only redundancy, but the tasks that need to be taken care of. And, on long distance flights, how can one pilot take care of flying the plane for 18 hrs straight? The co-pilot is there to fly the plane (did you ever notice that the co-pilot has a yoke, pedals, and all controls in front of him too?), and helps balance the workload. They both back each other up, and use combined judgement to handle emergency situations.

There are many ways to streamline the airline operations and cut costs, but cutting the co-pilot is not one of them. For a person who travels often, I can tell you that it is comforting to know that there are two competent pilots flying the craft.

Of course, a day will come when we will have wormholes for the planes to travel in (similar to the driverless trains) and we will not be needing either the pilot or the co-pilot, but those days are not here yet.