Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Case for Humans in Modern Aviation

Policy Innovations contributor Mikaela Bradbury reports on modern aviation:

I stayed away from the plethora of stories on the details of US Air Flight 1549 landing in the Hudson in the days after the event. I wasn't interested in many birds got caught in the engine, or the exact series of exchanges that went on in the cockpit. While reading the Wall Street Journal recently, though, a story about the incident caught my attention.

In particular, I was struck by a portion of Captain Sullenberger's testimony that emphasized the "importance of relying on experience and memory, rather than rigidly using written checklists to deal with unexpected emergencies."

The captain's comment illuminated the particular poignancy the story carries in contemporary culture. It offers welcome relief in otherwise bleak times. But more specifically the captain's rejection of rigid checklists, and his stunning performance in general, combats a looming specter in the airline industry, and America at large, of an increasingly mechanized and dehumanized work force–not to mention a work force devoid of human's altogether.

It could be argued that such mechanized and rule-adherent decision-making are partly responsible for the current financial crisis–where common sense and ethics took a back seat to an unquestioned faith in complex financial models–and has no doubt contributed to a number of other global crises haunting the globe.

In the airline industry, the battle between humans and technology is certainly being played out on the ground, where self-service check-in and online services have started to take over. Onboard, the winner of this battle is still undecided. Discount airlines in particular are wise to the role of personality in drawing customers, something that JetBlue established with its notoriously quirky crew.

On the other hand, quirky personal TV's are equally present in everything from ordering movies to getting a drink. Up front, the cockpit has become increasingly computerized and automated with digital navigation devices, while pilots face dwindling salaries.

As the value of human performance is at stake, the Hudson River episode demonstrates the indispensability of unquantifiable and un-programmable elements such as skill, spontaneity and intuition in solving unforeseen problems. As Sullenberger said in the WSJ, "The captain's authority is a precious commodity that cannot be denigrated."

Photo by davipt.

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