Pilotless Commercial Airplanes? No Thank you.

Brian Hennessy, Blue Hawk Aviation, LLC

The crash of Germanwings flight 9525 has highlighted the need for an assessment of practices regarding pilot break, cockpit entry procedures and the balance between pilots’ medical privacy and the good of the traveling public. However, one possible response being floated, autonomously piloted commercial aircraft, is not just “not ready for prime time”, it would almost certainly be less safe than the system it replaced. In fact, the history of aviation tells us that wholly autonomous commercial aircraft would simply allow for new risks to develop and propagate, and eventually become accidents.

Several rather obvious risks come immediately to mind when considering pilotless commercial aircraft. First, if the largest banks in the world cannot secure our personal information from hackers intent on gaining access to critical IT systems and data bases, it is a certainty that an autonomous aircraft system would also be vulnerable to cyber-attack. Second, a ground station would need to exist to provide, at a minimum, an area for “control of last resort”. Therefore, how do we secure that ground station from attackers intent on commandeering an airplane, or 200 airplanes?   Finally, how should that same ground station door likewise allow for entry should a deranged ground station operator wish to destroy an aircraft and murder its passengers? This conundrum may sound distressingly familiar.

Aside from the glaring unanswered safety, technological and cost issues associated with pilotless commercial aircraft, there is an additional, if uncomfortable point which must be considered before we consider unwinding the cockpit-as-fortress policies and procedures put in place after 9/11: These critical safety procedures and policies are in place not necessarily to protect 150 people on a given airplane, but rather to protect the 3,000 people in the building the terrorists will aim it at. We know with 100% certainly what terrorist will do when allowed access to the cockpit of a commercial aircraft.

Fully autonomous aircraft? No thank you. I’ll take experienced, well trained and well rested pilots in control of the flight my family is on over computer programmers and a “UAV safety operator”, thousands of miles away and connected to them only by a paycheck and a tenuous, vulnerable radio signal.

As tragic as the fate of Germanwings flight 9525 is, the actual chances of that same event happening to any given air traveler are absurdly remote and quite frankly do not approach, even remotely, the risk needed to consider a complete top to bottom redesign of the entire commercial airline industry. Despite this fact, I have little doubt that pilots, unions, airline management and regulators will seek to mitigate this risk in a realistic way, using the proven system safety approach that has made commercial aviation one of the wonders of the modern world.

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