Do you regularly drive, say, a Volkswagen car and worry about going on holiday and hiring a Ford? Of course not – you just jump in and drive away. Cars are not really quite so simple – you may need a minute to find the rear-screen wiper switch – but the basic operating and safety functions all translate near enough directly between types and makes. Automobiles benefit from an impressive degree of standardisation.
This basic characteristic of a technology we live with every day holds some lessons for aviation. One concern raised by two fatal Boeing 737 Max crashes is that the type rating regime may have been stretched too far – and not only where Boeing aircraft are concerned. Aircraft makers and suppliers, operators and pilots, regulators and air traffic controllers should all take this possibility seriously.
At root, aerospace innovation is expensive. Improving a safety-critical and high-performance machine is costly, whether the objective is to make an aircraft that performs better – in fuel efficiency, range, reliability, and so on – or is easier to maintain, or cheaper to make and buy. Improvements are pursued in a hyper-competitive commercial environment, so companies are wary of costs: of development, of regulation and certification, to customers.
Those costs are only going to rise, as regulators respond to growing public pressure for tighter environmental and safety standards and customers clamour for ever-better operating economies.
Meanwhile, aviation faces a recruitment and training challenge that threatens to tip into crisis. The industry must prepare literally hundreds of thousands of new pilots for cockpit jobs over the coming decades. Today – and this will not change – airlines are reluctant to take existing, qualified, expensive-to-replace pilots off-line for extended periods to learn to safely operate innovative new aircraft.
Now may be the time for aircraft to become more like cars, which is to say the pilot-machine interface must be much more standardised.
If the industry is struggling to cope with iterative improvements, like going from one variant of 737 to another, how will it handle upheavals like radical new aircraft configurations and operations in urban environments, all while hiring huge numbers of rookie flyers?
Manufacturers, operators and regulators should start talking seriously about establishing the functional underpinnings of new aircraft. What is standard will be understood by all; what is truly innovative can be specifically addressed in training and operations