March 27 - Is It Time To Deploy Drone Technology In Commercial Aircraft Cockpits?


Germanwings Flight 9525 Could Be A Game Changer

WASHINGTON, DC – Business Travel Coalition today said it was time to discuss and debate drone technology in the cockpits of commercial aircraft. In response to the Germanwings Flight 9525 tragedy several airlines around the world will, for the first time, require two crew members in the cockpit at all times. As such, if a pilot needs to exit the cockpit for any reason a flight attendant or other crewmember would enter the cockpit. In the U.S. this is a Federal Aviation Administration rule. While put in place in the U.S. as a precaution in case a pilot, alone in the cockpit, became incapacitated, it would offer an additional layer of protection when, in the rare situation, a pilot wanted to crash a plane. Other governments are currently considering such a requirement of their airlines.

Over the past forty years there have been nine fatal crashes around the world attributed to pilot suicide responsible for 449 lost lives. Almost half of those deaths came from the crash of Egypt Airlines Flight 990 off Nantucket, Mass., in 1999. While an infinitesimally small percentage of the billions of passengers who flew over that course of time, commercial airline crashes have an emotionally outsized impact on us – as evidenced by the press conferences and coverage after every such crash. In contrast, consider the relatively subdued press coverage over the 32,719 deaths by auto accidents in 2013 in the U.S. Similarly, the World Health Organization estimates that there were 1.24 million auto-accident deaths in 2010 – where’s The New York Times editorial?

“Because of this emotional connectivity with commercial aviation, Germanwings Flight 9525 might prove to be a game changer as several recent and particularly high-profile accidents can combine with the availability of drone technology tested and perfected by the U.S. military,” stated BTC Chairman Kevin Mitchell. “One U.S. aerospace company is already working on adaptation of drone technology for commercial aircraft such that a team of “third pilots” in an airline’s operation center would monitor flights and, if necessary, take command of a flight such as Germanwings Flight 9525,” added Mitchell.

The cost of implementing and maintaining such a system would no doubt be very high and could appear to airline industry executives as an irrational investment considering the compelling safety record of the industry. However, there are forces beyond the emotional connectivity to aviation at work that are outside airlines’ control that will likely drive the industry in this direction. There are already security analysts warning that Germanwings Flight 9525 could become a new page in terrorists’ playbooks. There are other circumstances and cost-benefit analyses that could support implementation of drone technology.

On June 1, 2009 Air France Flight 447, a scheduled passenger flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, crashed. Amid confusion and miscommunication in the cockpit, the Airbus A330 entered an aerodynamic stall from which it did not recover and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean killing all 228 passengers, aircrew and cabin crew. In short, the crew could not discern the situation that they were in until it was too late to take corrective action. A drone operator could have provided dispassionate analysis or taken over control of the flight until flight operations normalized.

On September 3, 2010 UPS Airlines Flight 6, a Boeing 747-400 cargo flight flying the route between Dubai International Airport and Cologne Bonn Airport, developed an in-flight fire with heavy smoke in the cockpit that obscured the pilots’ view of their instruments. The plane missed the airport and crashed; both pilots were killed. Turning the plane over to a drone operator may have been a solution.

On March 8, 2014 Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, a scheduled international passenger flight, disappeared while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The plane was never found. A drone operator could have possibly intervened and prevented that tragedy. At the very least, such real-time monitoring from the airline’s operation center would have quickly aided rescue and recovery efforts.

While implementing such technology would be expensive and time-consuming, the offsets would include the toll on families when loved ones are lost and never recovered; the enormous search and recover costs for nations involved; airline management time and attention, and damage to the airline brand, when recovery efforts drag on; and the ability to foreclose on a vulnerability from terrorists.

Now, there might be pilot concern over significant oversight of what is transpiring in their cockpits. However, that’s a debate worth having as there is a significant and growing public interest at play. Moreover, this would be a job creator. Just like the pilots who left the military in decades past and found great jobs at the airlines, today’s highly skilled military drone operators would have similar opportunities, and would help power a new commercial industry. 


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