What’s important is to differentiate between “technological” innovations and “business model” innovations. An example of a “technological” innovation would be pilotless planes or cockpit cameras while an example of a “business model” innovation would be requiring two people in the cockpit at all times, requiring greater psychological testing of pilots before they fly or changing the process for entering and exiting the cockpit.
As a response to airline disasters, technological innovations could open up a Pandora’s box of problems for an industry that is remarkably safe already.
Take, for example, the proposed technological solution of “pilotless planes,” which has received airtime on CNN during its wall-to-wall coverage of the Germanwings tragedy. The logic is simple: What better way to prevent a troubled pilot from ramming a plane into the Alps than to introduce new “pilotless planes” that are capable of being flown from the ground? Given the early success of unmanned drones and the public’s growing familiarity with self-driving cars, this might seem like an interesting technological route to pursue.
However, it’s not just that the technology is potentially open to a lot of technological glitches. What happens when the GPS tracking system goes out over the Alps? What happens if an airplane gets hacked? It’s also that people – pilots and passengers – don’t necessarily want this technology. As MIT aerospace expert John Hansman pointed out in a CNN segment on pilotless planes, “It’s not a technical issue, it’s an issue of societal trust.” Come to think of it, letting robots fly at 500 mph at an altitude of 30,000 feet over oceans and mountains — or in crowded international airspace — might not be the best idea.
Which is not to say that a technology such as pilotless planes is not feasible at some point in the future, perhaps for ferrying cargo rather than ferrying passengers or for unmanned military strikes against the enemy. There have been a growing number of experiments showing the capability of using pilotless technology on airplanes as large as a Boeing 737. Recently, Boeing has taken an F-16 fighter and transformed it into the pilotless QF-16 capable of dodging missiles in the sky and flying at 40,000 feet. And there’s a new U.S Navy drone fighter (the X-47B) capable of landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier without the need for human support. But there were no passengers aboard.
It’s not just way out-of-the-box technological innovations such as pilotless planes that face high “societal trust” hurdles. Even innovations such as cockpit cameras — which theoretically could alert airport officials if something strange is happening in the cockpit of a plane – are burdened with all sorts of problems. The process of retrofitting an entire fleet of planes with cockpit cameras involves more than just technological or cost considerations — it also involves the input of government officials, union officials, insurance companies and regulators.
As with any technological innovation, there’s the human factor to consider. Pilots may not want this additional level of intrusion, and that means getting pilot unions to accept this innovation could be tough. Pilots and co-pilots already have microphones on their headsets — they may not want to feel that they are being watched the whole time as well. Airline owners, already under pressure to cut costs, surely wouldn’t relish the idea of retrofitting planes with expensive new technology (unless, of course, they can pass along the costs to consumers in the form of higher airline tickets).
So why do we keep proposing these technological innovations, even when we know the technology is not quite there yet and that people who would use it don’t really want it?
One answer might be the enormous guilt that we have as a society any time a disaster strikes. It’s the “never again” syndrome — the gut feeling inside that we never want this type of disaster to ever occur again in our lifetimes.
But another answer might be the belief, whether stated or unstated, that technology always has all the answers. In short, the problem comes down to society’s embrace of “technological solutionism,” which can be defined as the inherent belief that most problems can be solved by technology alone. Or, more colloquially, technology to the rescue! In his 2013 book “To Save Everything, Click Here,” Evgeny Morozov highlights the sometimes shallow and simplistic ways that Silicon Valley technologists and Washington policymakers propose using technology to solve complex problems. You can lump airline safety into the mix of these problems.
What’s needed in the case of Germanwings Flight 9525 is some perspective. A young, lone wolf pilot deciding to crash an airplane full of passengers is an outlier event — a once-in-a-lifetime type of event that is statistically unlikely to happen again. As a result, turning to technology to solve such a problem doesn’t make as much sense as making business model innovations that improve the entire airline flight process from beginning to end. Instead of taking away pilots in the cabin, maybe it makes sense to require an additional pilot in the cabin. Instead of adding cameras in the cockpit to monitor pilots, maybe it makes sense to change the screening process for pilots, to prevent psychologically unfit pilots from ever getting into the cabin in the first place.
This might disappoint supporters of technological solutionism, who surely see some expanded role for technology in the wake of Germanwings Flight 9525. Maybe once driverless cars prove their worth on America’s streets and overhead drones work out their air safety issues, we can start talking about the future of pilotless planes. Who knows? Maybe by that time, the Hyperloop will be ready for business and we won’t be talking about planes anymore.