The story of Transition Level

We need to start this story at the real transition level. To understand what it is, we need an introduction to how pilots know how high they are flying, particularly in relation to other traffic.

Aircraft determine their altitude by measuring atmospheric pressure. On low altitudes, the altimeters are set to whatever the local atmospheric pressure is, providing more a more accurate measure of the actual altitude in the area. It is this altitude that acts as the reference point for all traffic at low altitudes.

Higher up, a standard pressure is used - 29.92 In-Hg or 1013.2 hPa - and planes fly at discrete flight levels (FL 310 = 31,000'). At an agreed altitude called transition altitude, all climbing aircraft will change their altimeter setting to the standard pressure.

The same thing happens in reverse coming back down.

This way all aircraft flying higher than the agreed transition altitude - which varies globally but is 10,000' here in Australia - will share a common understanding of where they are situated vertically, even if that shared understanding isn’t strictly speaking completely accurate.

Above the transition altitude is a transition layer, a sort of a buffer zone aircraft just pass through when climbing or descending.

The transition level is the lowest flight level available for use above the transition altitude. In other words, it is the lowest safe cruise altitude above the transition altitude.

The fact that flight levels do not exactly reflect the actual altitude, thanks to standard pressures used, is not important. High up, a precise shared understanding of relational altitudes is much more important than the altitudes being accurate.


Transition Level explanation

Hello, autopilot

The transition level is also significant in another way; it is rare for pilots to voluntarily hand-fly aircraft above the transition altitude - most pilots will activate the autopilot at 10,000ft at the latest, and many will do so much lower.

There is a good reason for that; flying fast and high reduces one’s margin of error, and hand-flying becomes an extremely demanding, high-workload activity - not something you want to be doing hours on end when other things need to be accomplished as well.

If an autopilot is available, the automation can just do it better at those altitudes.


Society in transition

Our society is also facing a similar transition level as we move towards higher use of automation. Similarly to air traffic, as we rise to the transition level, we, too, would need a common understanding of where we are and where we want to go.

Today, that shared understanding is lacking, and organizations and even countries are blindly shooting for the flight levels without much coordination or control.

Everywhere we look, we see increasingly automated systems, and we interact with AI multiple times a day without really even realizing it.

Sometimes this automation is done right and serves us well.

Often, however, it is not, and unintended consequences abound. Automation mishaps ranging from humorous to tragic continue to fill books, and sometimes critical systemic risks arise from careless automation.

When things do go wrong, it is often the people who use the systems who end up getting blamed, in the process acting as a moral crumple zone - protecting the system by absorbing the blame.

It doesn’t need to be that way.

Aviation provides a number of useful lessons to the many industries, organizations, and societies seeking to safely operate with increasing levels of automation.

There are ways to operate safely in that space, but only if we are thoughtful about it, and also heed those lessons that point us to NOT using automation for some things; and we always need to be prepared for when they fail.

Just like aircraft eventually do, sometimes societies also need to descend back through the transition layer to a space where there is more hands-on control - sometimes this needs to happen expediently, analogous to an emergency descent performed when the pressurization system fails when at high flight levels.

This is the domain Transition Level explores; how do we safely transition to a more automated society; how do we know when not to do that; and how do we effectively return to more manual control when things go wrong. 

While the emphasis of this endeavour is on what aviation can teach other industries, there are lessons directed towards the aviation industry as well as it is facing an onslaught of new technologies from new sources, cultures alien to it, impatience it is uncomfortable with, and attitudes and innovations that threaten its safety record.


One more thing...

The transition metaphors don't end there. Even more inevitable than the transition to a more automated world is the ongoing transition from a steady-state, mostly benign climate to a more volatile and unpredictable one, a more turbulent one, a stormier one.

Here, too, aviation offers useful metaphors and practices to draw lessons from - while avoiding this storm entirely is no longer an option, we can still learn to steer clear of the worst of it, and we can make sure we survive the storm we are about to fly through and hopefully avoid a societal flame-out.


These are the things the 21st century will be about.


We're approaching the transition level and we need to calibrate accordingly.


Our team


Sami Mäkeläinen


Sami Mäkeläinen is a Finnish-Australian technologist, humanist and pragmatist. After narrowly missing out on a pilot career a quarter of a century ago, he instead chose to dive deep into computer science. Sami gradually ascended from the coding gutters to strategic and technology foresight but never lost the passion for aviation in all its forms and the industry. He’s a proud cross-disciplinary professional who thinks aviation has much to teach to the rest of the world.