Commercial aviation faces a severe global pilot shortage, yet many passengers remain mostly unaware of the crisis. With ticket prices reasonably affordable for most middle- and even lower-income Americans, demand for air travel continues to increase dramatically. The Federal Aviation Administration reported around 609,000 active certified pilots in 2017 in the United States, down from 827,000 in 1980. Aviation companies around the world keep warning of an imminent pilot shortage, given the projected need for at least 600,000 new pilots over the next 20 years.
Could autonomous, or pilotless airplanes fill that void? Many airlines favor using autonomous commercial flights, in part so they can fill the void that the pilot shortage has created. By removing one, or even two, pilots from the cockpit, the pilot shortage could be eliminated. At the same time, the development of automated technologies clearly reduces accidents and incidents caused by human error; some airlines have gone so far as to require their pilots to use the autopilot feature during cruise flight because it performs more efficiently. In fact, a survey of Airbus and Boeing pilots found that they only manually fly about 3-6 minutes per flight, while the rest of the flight is in autopilot mode.
Proponents of autonomous commercial flight include airline companies. For them, autonomous technologies can help reduce pilot salary costs. There are also proponents among airline manufacturers, who want to design new aircraft without having to worry about cockpit configurations. This redesign could lead to improved aerodynamics and a smoother ride, particularly for supersonic flight — the reason why the Concorde required its nose to come down during landings was that the pilots could not otherwise see the runway.
The concept of autonomous commercial flight also draws opposition from groups such as pilot unions. A human pilot remains essential in case of an emergency or autopilot failure, they say. Captain Sullenberger’s incredible landing in the Hudson River is commonly cited as proof that we’re not ready for pilotless flight decks. It would also leave them without jobs. Even a reduction to one pilot in the cockpit would eliminate half of the pilots and would turn a pilot shortage into a pilot surplus.
How do consumers feel about self-flying commercial flight?
The answer depends on who you ask. Studies coming out of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and the Florida Institute of Technology have repeatedly shown that most of the public is not in favor of fully autonomous flight. A percentage of survey respondents are okay with the idea, however – particularly if they’re promised cheaper tickets as a result. Typically, men are more willing to fly in autonomous commercial airplanes, compared to women. People of Asian heritage are more willing to fly without a human pilot, compared to Americans. Younger adults are more willing compared to the elderly. People who are more knowledgeable about automation are also more willing compared to those who know little about it.
These early adopters will need to convince the rest of the public to agree before airlines start routing autonomous flights through major cities. Interestingly, most Americans are in favor of allowing autonomous cargo flights. They say that if they’re not on the actual airplane, they don’t have a problem with shipping a birthday present to Grandma via an autonomous cargo flight.
So, what would it take to get more people on board with the idea of pilotless commercial flights? Research into driverless ground transportation tells us there are two effective ways to convince the public to go along with the concept of autonomous transportation. The first is education. Studies show that when consumers know more about the autopiloting system, and particularly if the information is positive, they are more willing to ride in an autonomous vehicle. The second route is to demonstrate a consistent safety record.
Semi-autonomous cars, which leverage a shared responsibility between the human driver and autopilot, have been on the road for years now, and while there have been a few accidents resulting in death, the overall safety record is reasonably strong. If the aviation industry were to run autonomous cargo planes for 5 years in a remote part of the country, the public would learn quickly that this is a safe method of travel — assuming, of course, that there are no serious accidents.
All bets are off if there is a major accident due to the autopilot, or one that the autopilot was not able to handle. We already know from the accidents involving semi-autonomous Tesla and Uber cars that the public views these incidents very seriously. If an autonomous airplane falls out of the sky, we can be assured this will result in a huge news cycle and put the timeline of autonomous commercial flight back a decade.