A couple more planes got into trouble last week, but in general the skies remain a wonder of complex coordination. Yet it is disturbing to realise that while the whole affair is festooned with satellite guidance, precision radar, navigation computers and stupendous layers of safety systems, it relies in the end on the exact analogue of CB radio. If the chaps or gels in the pointy bit can't get through on the crackly, analogue, overloaded and interference-prone aviation frequencies to the chaps or gels on the ground, it all goes to pot.
This leads to fun and games. Any pilot of standing will have a quiver of anecdotes about what happened when a cabin announcement went to ATC instead, and vice versa. MP3s captured by scanner enthusiasts reputedly exist which contain stuff like:
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is Captain Speaking, we are at 38,000 feet and the weather in Tenerife is fine and sunny. First Officer Fantastic is currently picking his nose — oh, well retrieved, Nigel — and if you look out of the windows you'll see lots of blue stuff and some white. And if anyone has an idea about 21 down in the Telegraph crossword today, could they make themselves known to the cabin crew? (etc)"
"BA494, that's very good, now try telling it to your passengers".
It's much more dangerous when the transmit button gets stuck and the flight crew don't realise — although it can be entertaining to hear Speaking's every thought broadcast over the air, especially if it's about the private habits of the air traffic controllers who just made him late for dinner, it blocks out everyone else.
A report on pilot bulletin board Pprune today describes a situation like that over Manchester recently, and it soon became apparent from the subsequent discussion that there's no indication in the cockpit that you're transmitting. Most of the two-way radios I've seen have a little light that lights up red when you're on the air and doesn't when you're not, and its absence from plane radios is puzzling. I guess there are enough lights up there already, and the last thing you need while you're busy sorting out your landing is to have something twinkling away pretending to be an engine fire or stewardess overboard warning.
This means you want something that's unambiguous but unalarming, something that can almost be part of the background most of the time but lets you know when something's wrong by its atypical behaviour. Perhaps a little hourglass egg-timer that gently revolved while you were talking, and then reset itself when you'd finished — would be a useful reminder for when you had to check in again.
Or perhaps one of those electrical dancing sunflowers that jog about in their pot in time to the music. If that went off for thirty seconds when you thought you weren't transmitting, you'd be aware all right. And for all those old crusties who say that the modern cockpit is more like a Fisher-Price Activity Centre, that could be the last straw — which would improve morale among the younger pilots, many of whom are impatiently waiting for the codgers to retire so they can advance up the seniority ladder and become overpaid grumpy old men themselves.
As many incidents have shown, an imaginative approach to usability is often lacking in aviation, and ideas like those detailed above are well overdue for consideration.