Sunday musings: What (not who) is flying your plane? Abolish TSA? Dogs in airports

by Charlie Leocha on December 8, 2013

nighttime cockpit

Three questions to ponder — Is autopilot bad for pilot proficiency? Should we get rid of TSA? Can dogs in airports relieve stress?

Pilot use of automation eyed in air crashes

On some transatlantic flights pilots only touch the controls of the plane about a dozen times. Everything else is taken care of for them. Autopilot functions are a boon for pilots, but increasing use of automation is making pilots rusty when it comes to real-time emergencies when automation fails.

Increasing automation has been a tremendous safety boon to aviation, contributing to historically low accident rates in the U.S. and many parts of the world.

But automation has changed the relationship between pilots and planes, presenting new challenges.

Pilots today typically use their “stick and rudder” flying skills only for brief minutes or even seconds during takeoffs and landings. Mostly, they manage computer systems that can fly planes more precisely and use less fuel than a human pilot can. But humans simply aren’t wired to pay close and continual attention to systems that rarely fail or do something unexpected.

“Once you see you’re not needed, you tune out,” said Michael Barr, a former Air Force pilot and accident investigator who teaches aviation safety at the University of Southern California. “As long as everything goes OK, we’re along for the ride. We’re a piece of luggage.”

Congress should abolish the TSA — it’s time to privatize airport screening

This is a call that is being heard more and more these days, unless you are in a budget committee deciding how to get more tax money from fliers. Then again, let’s face it, TSA has a tough job. Passengers feel they are being screened too carefully. Lately, even the government has lambasted the organization for wasting money on their behavior police that doesn’t work. No one, it seems, likes TSA. It is a necessary irritation.

Is privatization the answer? Should the government get out of the airport screening business?

The GAO routinely finds waste in programs, but it usually just proposes ways to fix them — so the Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques program must be really lame. The GAO finds no “scientifically validated evidence” for the $200 million program, and it says that TSA deployed it before even doing a cost-benefit analysis.

That failure is one of many discussed in my new study on TSA, which proposes dismantling the agency.

TSA was created in a rush after 9/11, and today employs an army of 53,000 passenger and baggage screeners at airports. The agency has spent billions of dollars on programs that have few demonstrated benefits, including SPOT, the air marshal program, and the intrusive full-body scanning machines.

Airports welcome therapy dogs

What could be better for a stressed-out passenger than the chance to get a lick on the face and pat a dog? If you are a dog person, that would be heaven. Now, some airports are planning a doggy brigade to roam airports begging for petting and perhaps handing out wet kisses.

As with therapy dog programs in airports elsewhere, dogs in the Wag Brigade program at SFO have been carefully selected for their temperament and “airport suitability.”

Each will wear a vest that says “Pet Me!”

Other airport therapy dog programs already under way include the Pets Unstressing Passengers (PUP) Program at Los Angeles International Airport, the AmbassaDogs at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and the K-9 Ambassador team of Casey, a 69-pound golden retriever, and his owner at Miami International Airport.

And over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, members of the Kindness Team at Reno-Tahoe International Airport joined with Paws for Love to roam the airport with stress-busting puppies in hand.

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