The airlines have cut back on snacks, pillows, blankets, free baggage and other amenities. But here’s one cutback that can’t be precisely called an “amenity.” Among the services the airlines have apparently been cutting back on are pilots who actually know how to fly.
So much of a flight is now completely automated, all but 90 seconds for takeoff and 90 seconds for landing. The autopilot does the rest.
The result, said Rory Kay, an airline captain and co-chairman of an FAA committee on pilot training, is: “We’re forgetting how to fly.”
Maybe it all comes back to them, like riding a bicycle, but that’s probably not the most reassuring thought when flying through a thunderstorm.
The pilots do “fly” the plane, in the sense of programming navigation instructions into the onboard computer. According to the Associated Press, the committee said airlines or regulators discourage or even prohibit pilots from turning off the autopilot and flying the planes themselves.
No wonder the pilots fall asleep on long flights. Security regulations keep them from leaving the cockpit and schmoozing with the passengers. It probably wouldn’t be as reassuring as it once was.
Passenger: “What time will we be arriving in Honolulu?”
Pilot: “Hawaii? Is that where we’re going? Hawaii? The computer didn’t say. It’s just a whole bunch of numbers. But don’t worry. We’ll find out a minute and a half before we land.”
Fatal airline accidents are at an all-time low, thanks largely to computerization and automation, but there is a real question whether pilots, especially those who have grown up using autopilots, know how to react when computerized flight controls go awry.
The airlines years ago did away with the flight engineers, so there are no longer onboard IT help desks. So if the computer fails, the pilot comes on the cabin intercom and says, “We’ve got an emergency in the cockpit. Are there any 12-year-olds on board? Have the chief flight attendant bring them to the cockpit and have them hurry. We seem to have something called the “blue screen of death” up here. And yes, they can bring their game consoles with them.”
The FAA has recommended pilots do more hands-on flying. But as the AP’s Joan Lowy reports, “other regulations are going in the opposite direction.” Pilots are required to use their autopilots above 24,000 feet, which is where most airliners fly.
New GPS devices and computer navigation allow controllers to pack more planes in a given airspace and schedule descents more steeply so planes can land closer together.
Lowy says that airline training is now focused on automated flying and that a traditional source of skilled pilots, the military, is drying up as pilots choose to stay in.
That problem may be eased when a separate category of aviation specialists begins leaving the service — the pilots who remotely pilot drones.
If you’re going to automate, you might as well go all the way.
Pilot announcement: “We’re about five minutes out from Chicago O’Hare where it’s 17 degrees and blowing snow at 20 knots out of the northwest. Bundle up. Here in San Diego where I am it’s 85 degrees and sunny with a slight offshore breeze. We hope you enjoyed your flight. Sorry I couldn’t be with you. Well, actually I’m not.”
Now, when the counter attendant charges you $25 for your bag and offers you a $50 upgrade, she’ll make you an additional offer: For another $250, you can fly on a plane with a real pilot.
Dale McFeatters is an editorial writer and columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service.