Surviving Holiday Air Travel

Time‘s Amanda Ripley reminds us that last week’s crash of a Continental Airlines Jet in Denver wasn’t especially unusual. That’s because, as is typical of plane crashes, everyone survived.

In this case, flight attendants and passengers worked together to evacuate the plane quickly after it veered off the runway during takeoff, crashing into a ditch and bursting into flames.

Levitt blogged recently about the surprisingly good odds of making it out of a plane crash (as high as 19 in 20, according to government statistics).

But if flying is so safe, would you do it without a pilot?

Eric M. Jones

A couple months ago I got a phone call asking me some polling questions regarding something mundane. After hanging up I began to wonder if the caller had been a human. I thought not. There were many questions where the caller would say, "Please say 'yes' or 'no' to the following question...."

The Space Shuttle can be flown 100% automatically. The pilot used to push a button that started the mission timer...probably to feel useful. There are several times where a human cannot fly it manually, such as reentry.

Surely we will see robot commercial pilots, but there will probably be a "crew" that manages the system and dresses in snappy uniforms.

Remember that any algorithm (a written description of a process ) is now better done by computer. The only special value that humans still have is their amazing versatility and their (remaining) non-algorithmic skillsets.

And yes, people will marry their robots in the next decade.
You can buy (online) for many thousands of dollars, love dolls of great electromechanical sophistication and artistry .
And you ain't seen nothing yet....



Most landings (at least outside of the US) are not done remotely, but by onboard guidance and control (just like an autopilot used for steady flight). The "remote" part is communication between the plane the traffic control system to avoid collisions (gives and confirms runway clearance, plane reports altitude and heading, traffic control confirms, etc). But, pilots are there in case of emergencies (can engage manual control).
The likelihood is that "pilots" would still be on a plane to handle problems (take back control) and to run the pre-flight check and visual checks. It seems unlikely that commercial planes will be like drones since there is no need - the flight plan is pre-arranged. Drones are remote controlled only because it allows making decisions for a mission not well defined in advance.


Thanks for reporting this, when this accident happened all the major news networks reported on what a miracle it was that all the passengers and crew survived. It seems like the threshold for what qualifies as a miracle these days keeps getting lower and lower .


Well it is a miracle. Statistics don't prevent events, merely predict their outcomes based on past events. Remember that the whole previous blog-discussion about the survivability from air crashes included removing the three most deadly carshes from the total death numbers, and counting every collision of any kind as a "crash".

The Continental crash was an example of the worst kind of crash aside from a straight dive. The aircraft fuselage fractured, fuel spilled, there was fire, and the resting place was remote from the runway (requiring added time for crash units to arrive). It is rare for such a fire to be successfully extinguished, even more rare for all the passengers to evacuate before the fire reached them or trapped them in the cabin.

Decrying the miraculous nature of this survival is akin to saying most car crashes are survivable; therefore surviving a head-on collision after crossing the median on an interstate highway is both likely and mundane. Not!



No. I'd always take a pilot over a computer. Why? You can always turn off the power switch on a computer.


I agree with hal.
There is an aviation cliche,"survived the crash, killed by the fire".
It is not "typical" for everybody to survive a burning plane crash. And, that is not exactly what Ripely said either.


The eventuality of a completely robotically-flown plane (car, boat, train, etc.) seems certain to me. I also agree that algorithms are very efficient but it would take a large number of branches to take into account all potential complicating processes.

I guess if they can design a computer to play and mostly win against a human player they could design a computer to completely and safely fly a plane from take off to touch down.

Plane crashes, by the visual images of lots of ambulances, body bags, and official looking people, plus images of a multitude of grieving relatives, evoke strong emotions. However, our risk of dying from driving eclipses any risk from dying in a plane crash. I would guess that daily world deaths from starvation exceeds world deaths from airplane crashes over a decade by a factor of 100.



You will see a robotically driven tractor truck before you see a plane. This is the goal of "smart highway" proponents so that businesses could eventually remove the cost of employing truck drivers from transporting goods. I would fathom that it would be special interstate lanes for robot trucks with remote control of several trucks by a person in a central location. Then, upon arrival to a local destination, the trucks might take on a human pilot for just a short time of local street travel.

Think of it, the elimination of driver salaries and ability of trucks to drive unlimited hours only limited by the requirement to refuel/ maintain and deliver.

And, for the tinfoil hat and black helicopter set, smart highways would also allow the government to control personal passenger car travel by slowing the cars down for better fuel mileage, or disabling the cars if the person has driven too long at a time or is drunk, or limiting the amount of cars driving to a known protest area (say political convention) without proper access codes to the event or area. This would be sold first as a safety measure to stop fleeing criminals from crashing into innocent victims...


Joe D

Our first leg homeward yesterday was stuck on the ground at DTW for an hour due to winds on the east coast causing a ground delay at IAD. The pilots were notified during taxi, so we just sat out near the runway until we got the go-ahead.

The pilots were bored, of course, so the flight attendant asked my seven-year-old if she'd like to visit the cockpit. We went up, and the pilot said, "Want to see how we fly the plane? We push this button." It read "ENG A P" ("Engage Auto-Pilot"). He added, "Oh, and I move these sticks" (the throttles). I believed him, but I'm not sure she did.

Lots of pretty displays, though.


Try to wager the journey as a conception of the holiday and take it in the holiday mood. If you treat it same it will be fun and endeavor word games such as 'eye spy', or 'rock, paper, scissors' you will all find it easier.