Monday, April 09, 2018

Is the Airline Hub History?

Photo - Eric Salard CC BY-SA 2.0

A reader sent me this article from the Daily Beast (good God, man! What are you reading that for?) which foresees the denouement of the airline hub due to the arrival of a new class of commuter jets which can hop from destination to destination while skipping hubs.

Once those [smaller] jets reach the airlines they will have the same hub-killing effect in the rest of the world as here. Given the choice of flying a straight line from A to B instead of having to change airplanes on the way is a no-brainer in any language.

While the article gives a decent roundup of the recent history of the airline industry and the introduction of smaller yet longer range commuter jets, it should have been written about 15 years ago. The Canadair CRJ-200 first flew in 1991 and along with the Embraer ERJ series of regional aircraft came to dominate the regional airline market through the 2000s.

These smaller, faster jets held promise to both serve smaller markets from fortress hub airports, or to skip the hub entirely and fly point to point. Analysts thought they'd be handy in poaching passengers from a rival's hub as well. As it turned out, the hub killer commuter jet was anything but.

Primarily deployed by regional airlines which wet-leased their aircraft and crews to a major airline partner, commuter jets mostly enhanced hub operations by offering service to smaller "spoke" airports which couldn't support full narrow body service.

Airline hubs have always been inefficient in their use of crews and equipment, but very efficient in revenue generation using the ability to create many different city pairs. Point to point regional operations were never embraced by the major airlines which viewed those operations as subtracting value from sizable investments in their hubs.

The old Canadair and Embraer CRJ and ERJ jets are now being replaced by newer more comfortable "C" and "E" series jets but I don't see the economics changing much. In fact, an ongoing pilot shortage seems to be making some major airlines reconsider their relationships with their regional partners. Bringing their regional operations in-house means that they're more likely to retain the pilots they have brought onto their master seniority lists.

For instance, both United and Delta have recently purchased regional aircraft directly, though United may still have their regional aircraft flown by one of their regional partners.

However it shakes out, it doesn't appear, though, that the airline hub will be going anywhere soon.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

The Deadly Flaw Hiding in Self Driving Cars and Pilotless Airplanes (Hint: It's Humans)

Photo: Timtempleton  CC BY-SA 4.0

A common theme on this blog has been about the promise—and pitfalls, of automation in aviation. Pilotless airplanes have been trumpeted simultaneously as the final nail in the coffin of aviation accidents and as the solution to the ongoing worldwide pilot shortage.

Not to be outdone in the hyperbole of the future department, driverless cars are heralded as the end of everything from traffic jams and fatalities to the need to even own an automobile. Simply summon one on your smartphone and away you go to the opera or to work.

The reality of the future, while not thwarting all those dreams outright, may be riding the brakes a bit.

The fatal collision between a driverless Uber car and a pedestrian last month is calling into question the idea that driverless technology is ready for prime time. And the interesting part is that Uber, for their part, thought the same thing. Their driverless car wasn't really driverless, but had a driver hired for the purpose of sitting behind the wheel to take over if the machine made a mistake.

Well, the machine made a mistake when a woman crossed the road outside of a crosswalk and was hit and later died of her injuries. Tragic as that was, it is inevitable that these types of accidents are going to occur. Sensor technology, while good and getting better, still has a long way to go. If you find it difficult to drive in heavy rain or snow, machines have even more difficulty.

These problems will eventually be solved, but in the interim, it will be up to humans, whether in the car, or at a remote facility, to monitor the machines. In this case, the human monitor was not able to avert the crash. This, then, is the flaw in the system: humans make lousy monitors of machines, be it an autonomous car or an automation flown airliner.

A recent article in the WSJ highlighted the stressful nature of the job for which Uber's monitor/drivers were responsible:

“The computer is fallible, so it’s the human who is supposed to be perfect,” one former Uber test driver said. “It’s kind of the reverse of what you think about computers.”
 Also, as autonomous technology improves, the need for drivers to take action diminishes, making it harder to stay focused, test drivers said.

Humans, being human, become bored and distracted after a very short period of time. Well, then, you might say, we should employ other machines to watch the machines. This begs the question of what the monitor machine (or more likely software) should watch and why couldn't this functionality be incorporated into the primary control software.

This also gets to the nature of how machines think versus how humans think. Humans are better than machines at processing ambiguous information and confronting situations which are new to them. AI, or artificial intelligence, is how software engineers hope to emulate the human ability to make decisions when confronted with novel situations which haven't been pre-programmed.

This capability is getting better all the time, but has a way to go before humans can be completely written out of the equation. In the meantime, humans will need to be somewhere in the control loop. We should all hope that the human monitor isn't dozing when the sun gets in the eyes of the computer driven car while we're crossing the street.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Air Force Reserve Adds New Commitment for Pilots and Maintainers

U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Shane A. Cuomo

The Air Force Reserve just added an additional six month commitment for pilots and maintainers who wish to separate or retire.

While being careful to not call this new requirement a "stop-loss", the AF Reserve is adding on six months of involuntary service in addition to whatever service requirements were previously imposed. The military typically adds mandatory service requirements for things like aircraft qualification courses, professional development courses, and permanent change of station moves.

I find it interesting that the AF Reserve has to implement controls like this as membership as a traditional reservist typically requires as little as a few days per month up to about a week and a half per month for combat ready flight crews. In addition, reservists are protected from discrimination or firing by their civilian employers by a law known as USERRA.

What this telegraphs is that as the commitments, deployments, and tasking of the reserve forces increases, reservists, who already have a civilian career as a pilot or maintainer, are calling it quits.

What military planners seem to fail to realize is that pushing on the combined active/reserve water balloon in one place will result in a bulge in another place. That is to say that there is no free lunch. Higher tasking and deployments for the guard and reserves, most of whose members came from the active forces, will force an exodus from those organizations as well.

The military should either accept higher personnel loss rates in a good economy and spend the money and resources on training replacements, or, here is a novel idea: just start to say no to increased tasking, though that would require a higher degree of testicular fortitude than is normally displayed in the flag ranks.

Monday, April 02, 2018

The Dominoes Fall: Goodbye Great Lakes Airlines

By Quintin Soloviev - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Photo - Quintin Soloviev 

Great Lakes Airlines, a regional airline serving the upper midwest part of the US has shut down operations as of  last week.

In a statement released, the management of the airline blamed their woes on the 1500 minimum hour for pilots rule imposed by Congress in the wake of the 2009 crash of a Colgan commuter aircraft. Great Lakes management has had trouble finding pilots to fly their Beech 1900 aircraft.

A lively debate currently continues as to the efficacy of the 1500 hr rule which mandates that all pilots have a minimum of 1500 hours of experience before being able to serve as a pilot on a commercial passenger carrying aircraft. It has been noted by opponents of the rule that both pilots on the fated Colgan airliner had the minimum 1500 hours and that the rule would not have prevented that crash. The accident review blamed fatigue and training issues with the captain of that flight.

I am personally agnostic about this rule noting that the USAF and other military services can produce competent pilots with about 200 hours of experience. On the other hand, their training is estimated to cost about $1 million per pilot.

Also, there is an ongoing worldwide pilot shortage occurring in many countries without such an onerous hours requirement. The pilot shortage is a multi-faceted problem which will not likely be solved with the repeal of the 1500 hour rule.