Are we climbing or descending now?

” – Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. Can you tell me if we are climbing or descending now?

Is this the future for aviation, when the pilot will be on the ground as we fly? This is among the things I have asked myself during the pandemic with regards to automation.

I have attended many webinars during the pandemic, and webinars are really a kind of automation. It replaces a presentation made in a classroom or a conference theater. In stead of being on a scene, the presenter is sitting in an office or even in his/her home with a computer and a powerpoint presentation. This is then delivered worldwide by automation. An audience of hundreds, even thousands are sitting in their homes or offices with a computer, tablet or phone using automation technique to take part of this presentation. There are a few problems though…

” – Can you hear me?” or ” – Can you see my presentation now? Cause I can’t!” In Human Factors this is called being “out-of-the-loop”. That is, automation is doing its thing but does not give feedback to the user. I have seen presenters speaking for several minutes before someone points out that the presentation is still on the intoductory slide…

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Or you read in the chat window; ” –I only see a black screen.” or ” – Is there suppposed to be sound now?” This could be another case of “out-of-the-loop” where it is not obvious if the presentation has started or not. It could also be technical limitations. Like when the presenter suddenly disappears. Sometimes to quickly return; ” – I had to change computer” but sometimes never coming back at all. Then there is the bandwidth. Everyone is talking about it but I’m not sure many understands it. ” – We are having some problems with the bandwidth. If we all turn off microphones and web cameras, it might work.”

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Are we all trained to use this webinar automation? I’ve seen what I believe is examples of poor preparations. There seem to be different ways to set up a webinar, like assigning different roles. Who will, for example be able to share their screen? My guess is that would include the presenter? Instead I frequently hear; ” – It seems I can’t start the presentation?” and then “Oh, I can do that for you!” and “Great! So, next slide please…” and later “I think you are one slide too far, can you show the previous slide?” It can take minutes before they agree on what slide to show.

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And what role will the audience have? Should they use their web-cameras and/or microphones? Once, I heard someone having his mic on while having a loud argument with the spouse at home, thus disturbing a large part of the presentation. Other times the presenter asks ” – Can you hear me now?” and all we can do is to nod – without a camera or a mic….

Many of these webinars is about how things will be “post-COVID”. Very optimistic usually. This pandemic is terrible but also an opportunity. Now we can finally implement all that digital technology and automation. Like the conservative avitaion business, airports and especially air traffic management. ” – The technical solutions are already there, ready to implement!” and ” – If ATM just implement, they could be so much faster, cheaper and better…“.

Sometimes there is someone on the panel pointing out that aviation is safety critical and that could be the reason for being conservative. Using the terminology of Erik Hollnagel; it is about the ETTO – Efficiency-Thoroughness Trade-Off. In aviation it could be a good idea to rather lean towards the thoroughness side of ETTO.

Perhaps you think I’m hostile to technology. But during my many webinars I have also seen fantastic examples. Where the presenter organsation is well organised, all staff well trained, all settings made to suit the format and where technology works spotless. I think they took on the ETTO by being rather thorough.

There will certainly be much more autoamtion coming and bringing a lot of value. Still, my webinar experience tells me that when implementing automation it could be a good idea to be a bit slow, to design with the user experience in mind, to test a lot, to prepare well and to train properly.

Because, even in the splendid webinars I have attended there is the occasional; ” – Can you hear me? And can you see my presentation?” This is not the kind of thing I want to hear on my first pilot-less flight.