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.