What Are You Going To Do When They Come For You?

Like most people, I think the ubiquitous robot future is exaggerated. While headlines about machines going to take over our lives are everywhere, the associated artificial intelligence challenges abound and history suggests the economic party always continues with the machines going hand-in-hand with labourers anyway.

But, for the sake of a hype’s devil’s advocate, if you were leading a flight operations department in a reasonably-sized airline (not your uncle Tom’s Air Taxi with a PC-12 but an enterprise where 20+ aircraft can form an actual line in the air), where would you start to replace humans? After all, your basic job is maintained adherence to safety standards and optimisation of processes (and a potential 30% return on investment within a year): the soulless, salary-free, 24 hour-a-day working product of robotic process automation, once set on “repeat”, never stops for a bathroom break. Assuming a constant rate of scientific and engineering evolutions, you’d focus on standardised, high-volume, low time-consumption task and in 10 years we’ll have:

  • Flight-related tasks at 40-80% without human intervention, depending on willingness to invest.
    • Pre-flight preparation: manual tasks on the way out (or almost completely replaced through management by exception).
    • In-flight monitoring: minimum intervention and management by exception through constant connectivity and adapted aircraft (i.e. with intermediary adaptation layer installed even on older equipment because of the benefit of process efficiency and resulting competitive advantage).
    • Flight and cabin crew: difficult to replace in the foreseeable future for varied reasons (required human interaction by other humans, currently manufactured equipment standards, security issues, insurance requirements).
    • Post-flight processing: completely automated with no paper involved. Humans would only be needed for final decisions and to talk to other humans.
  • Regulatory compliance/manuals updates/documentation follow-up: automated, partly through higher levels of external auditing.
  • In cooperation with the head of ground operations: 90-100% process automation within 10 years (a USD 100 billion market without robots).
    • Baggage vehicle drivers, loaders, unloaders: replaced by self-driving vehicles and robotised assistants.
    • Fuelling service: same.
    • Toilet service, cabin cleaners: what’s not to automate and reduce costs by?
  • Together with the head of maintenance – 60% human-free by 2030:
    • Routine checks: droned already.
    • Fault analysis: much less engineering staff required through automated sensor processing and automated situational analysis. Final intervention by humans by exception.
    • Repair: depends on the devil in the details but can certainly be automated.
  • Emergency situation response teams: used in specific situations such as explosive device dismantling but generally a high degree of interaction with people required, so still largely human. 20% of decision support (and possibly a degree of manual coordination) could be removed in 10-20 years.


Source: Robotics Tomorrow

On a side note, that means that, save for maintenance downtime, airspace congestion, and airport regulations, operational expansion would become considerably cheaper (I’d estimate 27% in labour cost reduction of the average 34% airline expense with a corresponding direct operational cost (fuel, depreciation) increase).

So, what’s an honest flight operations worker to do in 10 years? The robot may not have a plan but you do:

Step 1: list your job’s functions in great detail, from the mundane (“create weekly punctuality chart”) to the highly complex “negotiate new ground-handling KPIs based on repeated delays due to their statistically-substantiated understaffing policy”.

Step 2: Look for high-volume highly standardised low time-consuming actions to figure out what can be automated initially. I’m not referring to reading e-mail but e.g. approving reimbursement claims, driving a GPU to an airplane – same process day in and day out and therefore soon to be performed by a being that does not tire or require pay. Cross these out.

Step 3: The entries without a line through them show your upper hand.

(Step 4: Assess if your manager and his/her manager is a risk taker since this outsourcing will take some entrepreneurial initiative to start).

dilbert robot

Source: Dilbert

I can start: can a robot write this blog? Probably not. It can seek examples of safety improvements in other industries and suggest other new information while I sleep (compiling information lists) but to apply concepts such as RPA to flight operations requires me. The recipient (could it be an automated posts crawler?) should not see the difference but hopefully they will have enough time to create something of their own based on my conjectures (that’s why I look forward to your comments below!).

All this panic seems to me misses another point: the future may not be AI-based but IA-focused. History suggests the machines will augment your intelligence in order to free your time and liberate cash to e.g. implement customer service in-flight initiatives (that is what emotionally deprived sentinels can’t do). So, if the robots could allow you to create your own job of the future what would your Kraftwerk be? Start drafting it now and get background preparations ready (i.e. study for it) because they’re already here.

Flight Operations challenge…accepted.


The Future ain’t What It Used to Be

Flight Operations circa 2058

Robots. I see robots everywhere.

Not only of the humanoid variety but as nebulous electronic brains that autonomously control all aspects of an airline’s daily operation.

The year is 2058 and humans have obscene amounts of free time. The person hiring you (people being involved face-to-face only in the last stage of the 3-step process) had one question: “How do you deal with long periods of idle isolation?” Because, in flight operations, you spend most of your time in ennui.

You are a flight dispatcher responsible for 149 flights (the difficulty of maintaining relationships with more than 150 entities, aka Dunbar’s law, has dictated this limitation). You use an interactive touch-screen wall showing flights with detected irregularities that allow a final human intervention based on estimated cost impact. You only need to weigh in whether passengers, crews, or machines are most important once the company has to spend beyond a certain threshold because small-change resolutions have been automated since 2031.

Additional human help still remains available remotely because a final confirmation from the human manager remains a requirement. These dozen highly-experienced, overpaid dispatchers have created a 24h support group (some might term it “an organized crime syndicate”) by being based in different parts of the world, ready to connect to any operations’ systems and assist e.g. when simultaneous rerouting decisions on a million passengers need to be executed instantly.

The era of mass movement without human interaction has taken over Operations Control Centres. Crew dispatchers do not exist anymore since crews have been replaced by robot pilots and passenger caterers. A few exotic regional operators still employ humans in the flight deck and some VVIP operations add on friendly, warm-blooded cabin attendants but higher C2 costs mostly dictate their demise by 2088 (as predicted by the CEO humanoid executive assistant based on assumptions for how markets will develop confirmed by the executive; one of 14 people in the 100-planes-fleet of an airline). Autonomous flight bus drivers have been widely adopted in high-speed equipment replacement excused by a proven 0.0 accident track record for 20 years (turns out that graph’s horizontal axis wasn’t an asymptote) and a reduction in the primary motivator for air travel (ticket price) assisted by well-manipulated government subsidies.

Technicians have also become hermits with long beards. Robots inspect the flying machines and repair most issues by deciding on actions automatically. The human gets involved only when a final, pre-programmed request for approval appears. Not many natural brains need intervene in this one-tap affair based on a reliability KPI dashboard.

In fact, since Amazon proved an entire cargo operation can be handled by 17 (P.P.S. see below) people with a big-data centre and ad-hoc “gig economy” assistance (that term being “so 2015”), human involvement in commercial passenger operations has been shrinking in a perpetual efficiency-optimisation drive. Mundane but essential tasks have inevitably been factory-style automated. Ground handling (baggage processing, passenger assistance, cleaning, catering provisioning): robotized or converted to self-assistance. Ticketing, check-in, terminal-side support: intelligent humanoids everywhere.

Audits though, are still in human hands. Creative marketing, legal disputes, international relations management, start in the minds of hominids and complete under the metal hands of androids. Those replaced have accepted to instead voluntarily fly to promote how great Intelligent Robot Airlines are. And stay with other volitionists.

Think I am exaggerating? Writing down what’s on everyone’s mind?

“Just because you don’t know what the future will be does not mean you can’t imagine what you want it to become.”

Flight Operations Challenge…Accepted.

P.S. I only chose 2058 because that’s the year I plan to retire from flight operations.

P.P.S. Rough estimate: 1 CEO/COO/CCO; 2 network planners, 2 revenue managers (also international relations and part time sales), 1 sales (part-time PR), 2 marketing managers, 1 HR & admin manager, 2 dispatchers, 3 technicians, 1 technological assistant, 1 quality controller, 1 legal.