In 1903 when the Wright Brothers were dreaming of an engine-powered flying machine that could independently soar high above the clouds, safety was definitely a consideration, but likely came second to the triumph of moving the dream of flying from the drawing table and into the sky.
Of course, there were numerous other attempts and inventions but the Wright Brothers’ famous 12-second flight was the first documented trip involving a weighted machine powered by an engine in lieu of balloons and blimps.
Fast forward about fifty years when the demand for safer travel promulgated the need for a better way to control the planes. Aviation technology and improved aviation safety led to the advancement in computer technology and the demand for safer and more effective air travel. The first airplane computers were onboard and analog computers that helped with the control of the aircraft.
These were typically utilized by the fighter pilots and assisted them to control the weaponry attached to the military aircraft. Today, airplanes use a flight management system (FMS), with an entrenched processing scheme that is able to automate the tasks necessary for flight. The onboard system relies heavily on sensors for navigation with the intent of creating a safer flight experience and a reduced workload for the flight crew.
In the 21st Century, aviation is technology-focused to reduce the costs to the airline industry and geared towards increasing airline profits by enhancing the travel experience. For example, airlines offer transatlantic flights with reclining state-of-the-art seating, and numerous amenities in-flight such as a personal entertainment system, telephone, internet capability, and a menu of movies and haute cuisine.
Also, there is new technology encouraging the plane to fly itself using auto-pilot technology that allows planes to fly autonomously. The thought of a computer application doing the flying can be a bit unnerving even though the pilot is present. Also, innovators are discussing ideas such as technology which would allow the plane to fly independent of human interaction altogether, including take-off and landing. This means the idea of a fully automated flight is the wave of the aviation future.
Technology such as the ‘Aviation Internet’ is being designed to would allow the information for pilots to be housed on the aircraft and independent of the folks on the ground. The advantage would be a fully functioning craft (think the plane not depending upon the towers for weather data and surveillance). This technology would certainly be useful for businesses, travelers, and government agencies. The theory is that the exchange of information would keep everyone safe – but what happens if the network goes down?
Advocates for aviation safety think more efforts should be geared towards airline safety. These include the aviation lawyers who are involved in the accidents and see firsthand the costly implications of relying on technology for air travel. They argue that relying on technology will not prevent plane crashes and cite recent airline crashes (Germanwings Flight 9525 and Malaysia Airlines Flight 370) as proof. Here, the reality of the mad scramble to locate the flight data boxes to determine the cause of the crash is in vain.
According to Slack and Davis, the data recorders from the Malaysia flight were never recovered, and the information from the Germanwings tragedy was almost demolished. Also, it’s no secret that the airline industry has suffered since the deregulation of planes in the ’70s, but is the focus on the survival of an industry at the expense of traveler safety?
The debate over whether the airline manufacturers and the Federal Aviation Administration are doing enough to increase flight safety continues. Since it’s not obvious whether our dependence on technology guarantees air travel safety, discussions need to continue to encourage initiatives for advanced technology that increase safety. Whether there is too much focus on in-flight entertainment and enhancing the flight experience remains to be seen.