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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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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