Coming soon: Planes without pilots

Coming soon: Planes without pilots
© Getty Images

In the old days of travel, we were asked “smoking or non?” Today we are asked if we'd prefer an aisle or window. But soon the question may very well be: ”Pilot or no pilot?” 

As crazy as it may seem, the era of a pilotless flight deck could soon be upon us.

Recently Airbus completed its latest test, with an A350 aircraft completing the first automatic takeoff ever. The pilots on the flight deck were in place, as a backup, but they were never needed as the plane rolled down the runway and rotated (lifted off) and climbed to the prescribed altitude. 

ADVERTISEMENT

The project has been in the works for more than two years, as 20 Airbus engineers create a system that allows the aircraft to use a visual reconnaissance program. The initial goal is for the airplane to taxi from the gate, hold, takeoff and then land, where the plane will taxi itself to the prescribed gate.  

No pilot needed.

As futuristic as this sounds, we are far closer to automated flight than many realize. As the car and truck industry move the concept of driverless vehicles further, aircraft manufacturers will do the same. 

The transformation will come in stages and over time. At first, cargo aircraft are to be fitted with the equipment, allowing for total automated flight. The two-person crew will be replaced by a single pilot, who will simply monitor the aircraft to make certain everything is operating as required.  

In time the technology will prove itself and the migration towards commercial passenger travel will be made, with aircraft outfitted for total automation. Airlines will place one pilot in the cockpit for the purpose of monitoring the flight activity, as a precaution, but more along the lines of providing a layer of comfort to passengers who might be a bit unsettled by the idea of a plane flying itself.

This single step in the process, where the flight crew is cut in half, would save the airline industry billions of dollars. And the next step would be to remove the backup pilot from the flight deck completely, saving even more money.

Airlines cannot wait for this technology to be available for their use. 

As you examine the causes of commercial passenger and cargo accidents, the vast majority have a component of pilot error in the equation. By removing the human element from the cockpit, the idea is we are making commercial jet travel even safer.

Of course, the given the ongoing issue with the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, the public is wary of the idea of computers being in total control. Yet in time, once the system has proven itself, aircraft that fly themselves will become commonplace. Aviation will become safer and airlines will make even more money than they do now.

ADVERTISEMENT

When you consider the expected surge in the demand for commercial airlines over the next 20 years (where the demand is expected to double), the concern over finding qualified pilots is justified. We could see pilots with far less experience hired and placed into service, because of the growing demand. But the lowered level of experience would certainly make the industry less safe overall, and this makes the concept of automated aircraft even more appealing and, in fact, necessary.  

With the safety and cost savings behind it, look for this idea to get off the ground and soon.

Jay Ratliff spent over 20 years in management with Northwest/Republic Airlines, including as aviation general manager. He is an IHeart aviation analyst.