The Newnan Times-Herald


Alex McRae: Flying blind

  • By The Newnan Times-Herald
  • |
  • Jul. 10, 2017 - 9:27 AM

Air travel has transformed the global culture. But air travel’s growing popularity is about to transform the airline industry.

Not by making flying more enjoyable. By making it creepy. At least that’s what I call a plane without a pilot.

It could be happening sooner than you think. At the June, 2017, Paris Air Show, Boeing executive Mike Sinnett said, “When I look at the future, I see a need for 41,000 commercial jet airplanes over the course of the next 20 years. And that means we are going to need something like 617,000 more pilots. That’s a lot of pilots. One of the ways that may be solved is by having some type of autonomous behavior.”

By “autonomous behavior,” Sinnett meant planes that fly themselves. And you thought takeoffs and landings were scary now.

Boeing officials say major airlines are already interested in developing “more efficient flight,” meaning flight with lower operating costs. Raising fares doesn't lower costs. Replacing pilots with computers does.

This can’t be good. Ask anyone you know if they prefer “efficient” over “human” in the cockpit.

Airline manufacturers are still glad to let pilots take over in rough weather, probably because robots can’t be programmed to do much more than say, “Danger, danger, Will Robinson,” when unscheduled problems arise.

Problems like unexpected wildlife encounters.

In January of 2009, a flock of birds took out both engines of an Airbus A320 on takeoff from New York’s LaGuardia airport. Captain Sully Sullenberger kept his nerve, used his head and landed the plane in the middle of the Hudson River, saving the lives of all aboard.

What would a robot have done? Probably called PETA to report a mass bird murder.

So far, the “dream” of pilotless passenger flight is still in the planning stages. It’s a blessing.

Pilots aren’t perfect—except in the eyes of their mothers—and bad things can happen to the best of them. I once hitched a ride on a military flight from Portland, Oregon, to Montgomery, Alabama. The flight was supposed to land at Maxwell Air Force Base. It put down at Montgomery's commercial airport, Dannelly Field.

Passengers didn’t know the difference. We all walked away happy.

The future is coming. And it makes me nervous. Autopilots may be swell, but I’m old-fashioned enough to prefer pilots with heartbeats instead of circuit boards.

Experts say the first pilotless planes will only carry freight. That’s a relief, but frankly, my flying problems have never involved pilots or flight attendants.

I just came back from a vacation that involved two flights out of different airports. Those four hours in the air were the worst of the whole week.

When I wasn’t fighting for elbow space with someone who looked like a model for “Terrorist Weekly," I was parked in front of a 3-year-old who only stopped crying and racing to the bathroom when the plane passed a new airborne treat.

“Look, daddy, it's a cloud. It looks like a puppy.”

“Yes, sweetheart. It does. Or could it be a bear. Or an elephant.”

“Waaaah! It’s a puppy.”

After two hours of this misery I looked out the window and saw a cloud shaped like a gun. By then, I wanted to use it on myself.

Here’s an idea. If airlines want to upgrade the travel experience they should offer flights with more pilots and fewer passengers.

Airlines need to cut costs to stay competitive. Everybody understands that. But a passenger has to draw the line somewhere.

I can promise I’ll never board a plane flown by something whose favorite beverage is WD-40.

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