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Challenges and opportunities in aviation

Aviation has always been a tech-heavy sector, but now the use of tech is spreading beyond the aircraft and the control tower.

There are many technologies being discussed in the industry – the development of hybrid aircraft, affordable supersonic aircraft, and drones amongst others. This is being tested by various companies globally, all of them keen to profit as much as they can from a predicted doubling in size of the number of aircraft and a large increase in passenger numbers.

The predicted increase would lead to increased pressure on infrastructure and services, which is why many airports are being renovated, or are expanding. In the current method of aircraft operation, more pilots and cabin crew will be required to manage the increase in demand when there is already a pilot shortage. One possible solution to this that airlines are seeking is the development of single pilot cockpits. Either way, technology is considered part of the solution to the problems raised by rapid growth.

Air traffic control

The shift towards remote control towers is allowing these facilities to be located away from the airport itself, and depending on the technology implemented, is allowing for the simultaneous management of multiple airports. The savings are said to be substantial. According to some sources ‘remote towers’ are between 30-40% cheaper than on-site towers and the number of airports adopting remote towers is increasing gradually.

Where smaller airports are being monitored, remote air traffic control is allowing a single air traffic controller (ATCO) to monitor several airports or runways at a time. In Norway for example, remote towers manage 15 low traffic airports, with another 17 in the pipeline.

The impact of remote towers on working conditions, and safety will depend on the working conditions of ATCOs and other ATS staff, as well as how much their work is intensified by the new conditions. Exposure to 360 degree screens, with multiple data displays, and having to monitor multiple airports simultaneously without corresponding analysis of the impact on fatigue and stress levels, raises concerns on both safety and labour grounds. This underlines the need to take the impacts on workers into account, and ensure that the tech aids them rather than replace them.

Baggage handling

The projected growth in the sector will also mean more baggage being handled and airports are looking to technology to enable them to do this. There is a growing tendency to adopt technologies drawn from warehousing – the miles of conveyors moving baggage around and between terminals, as well as the construction of central storage areas, where robotic cranes and robot arms then pack carts or containers for delivery to aircraft. There are currently robotic facilities like this at Amsterdam Schipol, Seoul Incheon and London Heathrow.

The packing of carts and containers is one of the most labour-intensive aspects of the baggage handling process, and the estimates are that robot solutions reduce the need for labour by 60%.

This does not take into account the labour needed to keep the conveyors moving, the robot cranes operating, and to deal with any problems in the system. There is no reason why baggage handlers cannot be retrained to do this work, which has happened in some warehouses.

Growth of the airline sector

Airline growth will mean more aircraft to be cleaned. Currently aircraft are deep cleaned about 4 times a year, depending on the type. It is a labour-intensive process, with some airports reporting that it takes 20 people between 8 and 10 hours to deep clean a large aircraft. New ‘robot cleaners’ are being adopted across the world, with notable examples in Germany, Qatar, India and Canada. These robotic cleaners are actually remote controlled by an operator standing on the ground. However, they claim to do a better job and, in less time, – taking about 4 hours to deep clean a large aircraft.

Maintenance

The connection and communication between equipment, tools and components allows engine and airframe maintenance to shift from a regular schedule to a needs-based system. Engine parts that need maintenance or replacement can be identified individually, which reduces the need for maintenance. This means that maintenance can be done more rapidly and means that airlines need less mechanics. However, an increase in the size of the sector could mitigate this impact.

Automated flying/drone tech

While drone technology is developing rapidly, particularly in the military sphere, it is unlikely that drones will become common in passenger transport in the near future. This is due to low passenger acceptance and regulatory barriers. At the same time, a shortage of pilots and an increase in demand could lead to robots becoming common alongside human pilots. There is however the possibility that air cargo operators may begin using drone technology in remote areas on a trial basis. We have seen delivery companies such as Amazon use this technology for small payloads.

Monitoring technology

Monitoring technology such as videos and microphones, as well as the use of technology to enforce a particular intensity of work, is starting to change the working environment for most aviation workers. Cabin crew in some airlines are benchmarked against each other in relation to sales.

Whether you are a baggage handler, a security guard, a mechanic, a shop assistant or a pilot, the tendency towards the increased ‘transparency’ of all the work processes in the sector to external supervision is one that is likely to bring a qualitative change to your working life. This is something that unions need to focus on.

What data can these technologies collect? How can they be used? What pace of work are they imposing, is it reasonable? These and other questions need to be answered, and soon.

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