Do Pilots actually fly the Airplane?

or Does the autopilot actually fly?When will planes go autonomous? and a myriad of similar automation questions

My favorite one has to be this one:

My friend is a cabin attendant and she told me that pilots spend more than 95% of their time just chatting, doing Sudoku, etc.. She thinks it is only a matter of time before pilots will fly from home or the office. Or at least one of them will. What do you think?

Cabin Attendant Friend

This is another question-set that is buried in misunderstandings and hyperbole. While pilots use automation extensively, it does not mean that the pilots are sitting there doing nothing. Nowhere near that.

The autopilot was not envisaged to replace the pilots. On the contrary, it was thought that the pilots’ jobs is so complex, that we can delegate the mundane, the routine and the repetitive tasks to the autopilot. The autopilot is great at flying the aircraft level for hours on end, or to adjust the speed to match a target set by the pilots.

Try to program the autopilot to avoid a thunderstorm and you will realize the technology is still years away at least.

The autopilot uses data from flight management computers that the pilots setup in the beginning of the flight to “fly” the aircraft. Throughout the flight, pilots are feeding inputs to the autopilot and are continuously engaged in making sure the correct outputs are being delivered by the autopilot

The auto-flight system doesn’t fly the airplane, the pilots fly the aircraft through the auto-flight system.

For example, an autopilot can land the aircraft down to zero visibility, but to get the aircraft off the runway and move it to the parking position what is called taxi is still completely manual. This is on daily, normal operation and this is just one example of many functions that are still not touched by automation. Another important function that is still fully manual is the takeoff.

Airbus attempted this year to show us new technology, around takeoff, while it still disclaims almost every new technology with the the below quote or something similar that emphasizes the role of pilots

For autonomous technologies to improve flight operations and overall aircraft performance, pilots will remain at the heart of operations. Autonomous technologies are paramount to supporting pilots, enabling them to focus less on aircraft operation and more on strategic decision-making and mission management.


This is just an example of normal daily operations that still have the pilot doing all the grunt work.

The design of all systems in the aircraft is built around redundancy, which is basically saying that you have two or more from everything so that one failure doesn’t cause the aircraft to be in unsafe condition. However, when multiple failures occur, the aircraft will leave to the pilot to deal with the situation.

A Russian Captain landed his aircraft in a cornfield when he lost both engines, this complex decision-making cannot be referred to a machine in the foreseeable future. This is the same as what Sully did with his fateful flight. Lets forget for a second that this became his cashcow and he wrote books, gave speeches and speaks at events for $50,000. What he did that day is not reproducible by machines.

Manufacturers of aircraft are experts at risk management, they design systems that perform exceptionally well and when they won’t or can’t, it is the pilots’ responsibility to manage it

For example on this B747 Jumbo jet seen doing a crosswind landing, the aircraft is certified to do an autopilot landing up-to 25 knots of crosswind. In the video below , it is safe to assume that this well above the autopilot limits and one of the pilots is doing the landing.

To conclude, pilots are there doing there jobs and will continue to be there for the near-to-mid future. The pilot community found value in technology, the same way your job is easier done because of computers or the internet. However, this doesn’t mean their job is transferable to computers, or at least they are at not at the top of the at-risk careers.

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What do other airlines do for their staff?

It seems I hit a nerve with my previous post about COVID-19 impact on the airline industry. It seems many of my readers think that the cyclical nature of the industry is normal and that furloughs and layoffs are the standard.

First, it is worth noting that the airline industry has historically had such low margins that it had been always the butt of the investors joke

The worst sort of business is one that grows rapidly, requires significant capital to engender the growth, and then earns little or no money.

Think airlines. Here a durable competitive advantage has proven elusive ever since the days of the Wright Brothers.

Indeed, if a farsighted capitalist had been present at Kitty Hawk, he would have done his successors a huge favor by shooting Orville down. 

— Warren Buffett

Be that as it may, with the majority of the airlines being able to post a profit over the past few years. Profits doesn’t mean cash at hand, I am no economist, but read here.

The Airline industry made a revenue of 885 in 2019. The profits are a meagerly 3%. 29 Billion seems like a large amount of money, until you think that the airlines had to carry 925 Million passengers to make them.

That’s a profit of $30 per passenger. That’s a good year!

The Airline Industry has never made much money

Now this is how much profit the airline made over the past period. Now the charts below shows that COVID-19 cost the airlines the equivalent of ten years of profit!

IATA estimates of revenue change until March

So the airline industry finally got a good decade and made money for its owners, shareholders, investors, public, etc.. Now that is all swept away. This doesn’t take into consideration the month of may.

My colleagues in the US and Europe, it is essential to understand how the picture looks in other parts of the world. Unions have for years made sure that the Airline industry is looking at the staff as the only disposable cost.

When unions have been tough and adamant to fight for their members, the airline has seen this as unnecessary cost that they need to shed. There are places…

where layoffs are the last resort

Singapore Airlines has asked its pilots to take unpaid leave for up to seven days each month, starting 1 April.

For Etihad, the troubled carrier in the Capital City of Abu Dhabi, UAE Executives, pilots and engineers will be paid half their basic salaries and cabin crew would be paid 25% less in April, the email said

Emirates has sent an email to its staff, which our colleagues have sent to us and it says the same will befall its staff.

Emirates has deferred announcing any layoffs

A senior executive in Emirates told me, on condition of anonymity, that the strategy of the Airline requires having a pool of reserve pilots and it cannot afford to layoff many pilots. Replacing them to the standard acceptable to the Airline is not cheap or easy

Royal Jordanian, a smaller but certainly influential airline in the Middle East has also announced 50% reduction in salaries across the board. A memo that askapilot saw from their Flight Operation VP assured pilots that layoffs are a last resort. The pilot community in many parts of the Middle East are restricted from unionizing.

The VP who didn’t reply as of publication told pilots that the government announced a holiday and thus they will still be on paid leave until the official lock-down changes.

Royal Jordanian staff memo

Khalil Wahhab, Vice President of the Independent Trade Union of Air Transport Workers in Jordan told us that the trade union, which represents some 300 workers is actually following up individual cases with some airlines whom are thought to be violating the local laws.

However, he acknowledged that Royal Jordanian is actually paying the full salaries of March. The slowdown due to government imposing restrictions on travel is officially labeled as paid leave up-to the end of March

The government in Jordan seems to be more hands-on and some experts we spoke to can confirm that layoffs and furloughs are not allowed as per the latest decree.

To conclude

Pilots are essential to have airlines flying and they are essential in driving the airlines forward. However, depending on corporate culture and tone, they can be seen as part of the problem or part of the solution.

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I was surprised by the female in the cockpit

“… and as I was boarding, I looked to the left side to say hi to the cockpit crew and there on the left seat was a lady Captain. What do you think of women in Aviation”

This is one of those questions that I get all the time, in fact, I received a similar email last week.

I blame the media. Yes, such a cliche, I know. But, when have you ever seen a female Captain in a major movie or even on TV? I am not talking about balloon pilots, fighter pilots, or military choppers. I am talking about a female Airline Captain.

In fact, media has sensationalized female Captains doing their jobs properly which further added to the conception that they probably are less capable to do that for some reason. The southwest accident that had the female Captain praised for her “nerves of steel”. This is both patronizing and condescending.

Of course she was gonna do a good job, that’s what her training is supposed to get her to. Still, the coverage focused on her years in the Navy, her extensive experience that helped her to fly like that. That will help, yes, and that is part of who she is, yes. Was why she flew like that? No

Let me say something here, a Captain, regardless of gender, on any reputable airline in the world should be able to do the same. This is not to belittle her experience. This is to say, all Captains, male or female are trained for that and would not take command of an aircraft if it wasn’t for that.

If a female Captain never served in the Navy and didn’t have the same profile as the Captain in southwest, would the outcome have been much different? No!

I would venture say that no career, with as many practitioners around the world, has as rigorous a system as the airline training regulations. The output has to be like that. Again, regardless of gender. For that matter, regardless of creed, race or any superficial factor like that.

Is it safe to fly with a female as the pilot?

All the pilots I know and the majority of pilots that flew with females will tell you yes. Unequivocal. Is there such a thing as “The pilot?”. Well, not in Airlines. The cockpit has to people in it. The Captain and the First Officer, this terminology is borrowed from maritime traditions. The Captain in Airlines sits on the left, the First Officer on the right!

I would fly in the cockpit with a female any day of the week. I flew with female Captains and with some of the pioneering ladies of our industry. At no point did I notice a difference, save for the normal variances that differ between one pilot and the next.

Now lets talk science, a study in 1996 showed that female pilots made mistakes and caused more accidents. However, when the study authors controlled for things like experience, the airline (major/non-major), amount of flying, these differences all but disappeared. The result of the study is below

These findings suggest that neither males nor females are a safer pilot group. Airlines should make every effort to recruit and retain experienced females.

Professor Kathleen L McFadden

Why are female pilots less experienced?

Well, the industry just doesn’t have enough pilots who are female. Simply put, there is not enough female pilots there.

Its that simple!

The Major airlines in the world are struggling to find masses of female pilots. I would go on a limb here, they would hire them if they can find them, it’s just that they don’t exist. International Society of Women Airline Pilots finds most major airlines have less than 8 % female pilots, they estimate that 7,500 female pilots are around 5.2% of the global Airline pilot workforce.

ISWAP estimates that 5.2% of Airline Pilots are females

The country that has the most female Airline pilots seems to be India. With around 12-13 % that is still way short of the needed. I will talk here next week about the reason, however, we need to understand something. Most psychologists and social scientists agree that there are minute or no differences between men and women. Period!

An important point to mention, women have a small, minute or non-existent difference in their cognitive abilities, towards the end of the link above we read this:

 They found that merely telling women that a math test had previously shown gender differences hurt their performance.

Spencer, S.J., Steele, C.M., & Quinn, D.M. (1999) Stereotype threat and women’s math performance.   Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35 , 4-28.

I would go out on a limb here, but I think that is the issue here. The society in general are assuming things about gender differences that are antiquated or based on ill-understood research.

Turning the tide requires a lot of positive role models. We need to create them, be politically correct -despite my loathing of the words- about female pilots and set the correct positive tone to allow this industry to break from the remnants of misogyny, chauvinism and sexism and allow this industry to move forward to the 21st century in terms of Gender equality

More Reading:

Why India beat the world in female airline pilots percentages?

Editor Note: The featured image refers to this story

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COVID-19 and the Airline Industry

How does the novel Corona Virus COVID-19 affect your work?

This, or a close variety something that I get asked very often these days.

This is a rather long answer, but if you just want the effect on pilots scroll to the bottom

The Corona Pandemic is affecting the global economy in a major way. I would want to believe that 1% shrinkage of the economy is the expected outcome. However, I would think that this is not even the beginning of it.

Airline and Travel Industries

The travel industry however, is probably the most impacted and the airlines are feeling the hit

Eurocontrol Traffic March
Eurocontrol data shows upto 88% drop in traffic

Europe is probably a prime example, as the countries agree to shutdown connectivity in order to contain the virus. The chart above is from Euro-control. Simply put, Euro-control is the Air Traffic Control agency for Europe. Europe has seen a drop of up-to 88% versus a year ago

In layman terms, these are the people who tell the us where to go and how to get there.Climb, descend, turn left, turn right, cleared for take-off, clear to land. That sort of thing.

They would know how many airplanes to expect based on seasonality, day of week, etc. They also track how many airplanes actually flew and what types because eventually, they would need to charge the airlines for their services

Far Fewer Flights. Flightradar24 is seeing record low number of flights due to the corona COVID-19 outbreak
Flightradar24, the popular app, is showing record lows in number of aircraft

The phenomena is worldwide, though I don’t think it has peaked yet, many countries are maintaining connectivity while others are simply shutting down their airspace.

If a country experiences an influx of cases coming from abroad, this usually results in shutting down the airspace.

American Carriers are in there as well. They have lead the drive to cut capacity as the demand fir seats has all but faltered, during the past 2 weeks as Corona started becoming more mainstream in the US.

Data from the U.S. Transportation Security Administration showed about 180,000 passengers went through airport security checkpoints on Sunday; by comparison, checkpoints processed more than 450,000 passengers the prior Sunday and more than 2.5 million on the same day a year ago.

Business Travel News Article

Find the article here. Yes, these number are catastrophic and nothing the aviation industry has ever seen before. 82% reduction in passengers (granted, many are cancelled with some loads) is not something Airlines saw for more than a few days in their history.

I am certain that this is the biggest hit that Airlines took. Full Stop. Ever!

While the American Government and Congress are rushing to save the American Carriers, many governments in the world will feel compelled to do the same

So to sum up while airlines in the US might be running empty airplanes to benefit from the government subsidies, just like the European airlines were doing to preserve slots. The governments

How it affects us?


Pilots like all airline employees will feel the heat immediately. After 9/11, 2008 slowdown, deregulation, etc. Airlines have playbooks for disasters. The first thing is to assess how much of their staffing is disposable and to start immediately, furloughing pilots, delaying hiring, firing staff, etc..

Just like American carriers sent their K street cronies to the hill, to demand money after telling us that they will never need it. The same will apply to every airline from the top 10 lists.

This doesn’t mean that we are saved. However, many of the specialized groups of workers in the airline industry get a furlough. These employees are invariably well trained and specialized that airlines would like to able to call them back when things start picking up. They don’t want to keep them on the payroll, however.

A furlough is basically: “Go home and we will call you when we need you, also, apply for a new credit card as you will need it!”

This places many of those people in uncertainty, some are sick of how many times they have been furloughed. It seems that every economic downturn in the airline industry is immediately impacting them and their families. They move on to a different route and leave their dreams behind. Others wait until recalled and many pick up random jobs on the way.

Increased Risk

Finally, those who are still flying, especially internationally, are sometime being put in harms way, whether or not a pilot can avoid contracting Corona when flying into an airport or city that has an outbreak is questionable.

Whether the sanitizers, wipes, masks and gloves can lower the risk is not doubtful. What is doubtful is the fact that pilots and cabin crew have to work in close proximity to each other. NY Times ranks pilots close to nurses in terms of proximity but not in exposure of course.

Proximity pilots to each other is a thread in the age of COVID-19 Novel Corona Virus
NYTimes interactive chart shows the proximity in the pilots’ daily work is a real threat

Career Progression

This is more of a long term thing, but whenever the economy was booming pilot unions were quick to point out the deficiencies in their contracts and seek better conditions. However, whenever there was a slump, airlines were quick to seek newer contracts with unions that reduce the pay and benefits. This COVID-19 disaster is almost certainly going to take airlines down that route as demand for pilots has softened locally and internationally for the first time

To sum up, this is not the best time to be looking for a career in aviation or to be employed in Aviation. However, I am hopeful that the world understands the impact on the economy of the Airline industry and the growth potential that the Airlines sustain.

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