Vivek Haldar


Nicholas Carr’s new book, The Glass Cage, opens with a discussion of the FAA’s recent 1-page alert that cautions pilots to do more manual flying. Long, routine hours of flying on autopilot was atrophying their skills to the point where when something went wrong and manual intervention was required, many did not know what to do.

Here’s an idea that sounds implausible today but might be practical in a decade or so: have pilots fly all commercial jets remotely from a “flight center” on the ground. There might be one such center for a designated geographical area. They might hand planes off to one another. Air Force pilots already fly drone missions halfway across the world remotely from a base in Nevada, so at least an early version of this idea is already being practiced.

That would mean pilots are fully engaged and active during their shift, rather than being lulled by hours of autopilot after a 2-minute manual takeoff. When something goes wrong on a flight, there will be a roomful of pilots to help out.

The major hurdle to implementing this will probably not be technical but getting people to board a commercial jet that doesn’t have a pilot on-board.

The issue with automating certain jobs is that their scope doesn’t expand. For example, a pilot performs certain actions, and if you automate 90% of those, the pilot is left with the same amount of time but only 10% of their prior workload. Contrast this with software development. Many tasks that were manual a decade ago are now handled by tools: automated build/test/deploy, IDEs that understand code and can perform sophisticated refactorings, infrastructure for rent etc. But today’s software developer still has their hands full because the overall complexity of developing software and the scope of problems that software tackles has grown too. Autocomplete in the IDE might have made them soft when it comes to remembering the APIs, but they do have bigger problems to grapple with.