The pilotless airliner is no longer unthinkable. It is just a matter of time before airliners have one pilot, and soon after that they will have none.
The first one-pilot commercial air transport aircraft will be freighters, and that sector will almost certainly blaze the trail to the pilotless passenger aircraft. That will be a cockpitless airliner in which first class passengers will occupy the window seats at the sharp end.
The aircraft might have a pilot standing by for emergencies, but s/he will be back at base.
What are the indicators?
Airliners are already highly automated, and pilots are increasingly being told not to interfere with the automation. Meanwhile it is already accepted – or even status quo – that unmanned autonomous or remotely piloted air vehicles will take over many of the military and general aviation tasks now performed by aircraft with a cockpit.
Although serious airline accidents are now more rare than they have ever been, that is the result of improvements in aircraft and systems design, not of a Darwinian improvement in pilot skills.
In fact the effect on pilot mental skills of the high levels of automation is a serious worry to the industry.
Accidents resulting from pilot inability to cope when the automation or guidance fails – or when it is simply not available – are becoming the new killers. The common serious accidents now are loss of control or controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) resulting from pilot failure to monitor, believe or understand what is going on. You will find a brief description of this concern and the potential consequences in a blog entry I wrote a few weeks ago.
The main barrier to pilotless commercial aircraft operation is the primitive air traffic control system we have at present. Although controllers are provided with predictive as well as actual traffic information now, the system is completely human-driven. From about 2020 this will begin to change, and by 2030 controllers will not control traffic, they will be available in case something anomalous happens. That’s like the airline pilot’s job has been for some time, but air traffic management is about 30 years behind onboard systems.
When Europe’s SESAR and the USA’s NextGen ATM systems have been fully up and running for a few years, aeroplanes will carry out their own trajectory management and their own traffic separation. The rest of the world is preparing to go down the same path. Pilots’ and controllers’ jobs as they are today will be redundant.
Imagine an airline crewroom in 2030. The airline has, say, 300 aeroplanes, but only about 50 pilots. About ten of these will be on duty in the crewroom at any one time. There they have several cockpit-like interfaces that can link them electronically to any of the fleet that’s airborne at the time. They have ten engine and systems engineers to help them. On the rare occasion that something anomalous occurs on an aeroplane, an alert sounds and all the flight and systems data for that aircraft are made available on the interface in real time, together with a systems diagnostic report. They can intervene as effectively as they could have done in the aircraft.
The aircraft commander will be the Purser – the senior cabin crew member – and the pilot back at base will be the driver.
It raises a lot of questions for the industry, especially the training industry and those who supply it. But also for the avionics industry. Avionics will still be essential, but the interfaces?
From the point of view of an airline management board, what’s not to like?
After the freighters have gone autonomous, the low cost carriers will be next. The legacy carriers will not take long to follow.
I am researching this issue right now. If you are in the industry and your company will probably play a part in this pilotless future, or if you totally disagree that it’s feasible, get in touch with me please.