"None of it is easy," he said. "In a lot of ways, it's more difficult because airplanes are so much more complex now."
Sure, there's a lot of "hands-off" time, but there are also many tasks that surround the management of the airplane and its computerized systems. "You're utilizing a different skill set."
Some fear that airliner pilots rely too much on autopilot technology, saying that such a reliance leads to lack of practice and infrequent use of manual piloting skills. Experts have suggested this may have been a factor in the mysterious Atlantic crash of Air France Flight 447 from Brazil to Paris, which killed 228 passengers and crew.
As technology becomes more and more sophisticated -- and trusted -- an expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says commercial airliners could one day be piloted by remote control.
"We fly many unmanned air vehicles around the world today, mainly for military or small airplane applications," said R. John Hansman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics, and head of the Division of Humans and Automation, at MIT. "At a technical level, there's no reason why we couldn't do that with a commercial airplane."
Far-fetched? Hansman isn't the only one in the airline community talking about this.
At an aeronautical conference last August, Boeing President and CEO James Albaugh announced that a "pilotless airliner is going to come; it's just a question of when. You'll see it in freighters first, over water probably, landing very close to the shore," according to IEEE Spectrum magazine.
The idea won't be widely accepted until at least a couple of generations from now, said Hansman, who's also a licensed private pilot. But experts are already planning how it might work.
There are two basic academic models. In one, pilots would fly airliners by remote control from "cockpits" on the ground -- just as pilots currently fly Predator military drones over Afghanistan and along the U.S.-Mexican border.
"There's another model where you might have a flight attendant sufficiently trained," said Hansman, to act as a backup pilot on automated or remote-controlled airliners.
Yes, you read that right.
There's an idea out there to have backup pilots who also serve passengers peanuts and tomato juice.
"There are people who discuss that," Hansman said. "I don't know if that's particularly realistic."
Frustration is the word Smith uses to describe this kind of talk from "aerospace academics, researchers, professors, consultants and other smart people who often have a very limited grasp of the day-to-day operational realities of commercial flying."
That's not to sound arrogant, Smith said, "but it's a theoretical discussion for researchers and scientists, and it's not anything with any practical application at this point."
"It's wrong on so many levels that it's hard to get my arms around it and explain," he said with exasperation. "And for what? You'd still need human beings to operate these planes remotely. Thus, I'm not sure what the benefit of this would be in terms of cost."
Cost might actually be an argument against it. Building necessary infrastructure would cost hundreds of billions of dollars, Smith said.
It's like saying we should get rid of surgeons in the operating room because of advances in medical technology, he said.
"I think there's something about flying that brings out this remote-control fantasy in people," said Smith. "I don't exactly know where it comes from."
As MIT's Hansman explained it, pilotless airliners would simply be the end result of the current evolution of flight deck staffing.