Hey guys, I have had this question brewing in my mind for a while and was wondering if you had more information on this subject. As a young flight student who would love to have a pilot career that spans four decades, I have the feeling that this won’t be possible as automation in the cockpit increases. Do you guys believe that airlines will transition to single-pilot/fully automated cockpit operations in the next 40 to 50 years?
This question comes up from time to time and my answer hasn’t changed. While none of us know the future I really don’t see that happening (at least not in our lifetime). When I was a kid 50yrs ago they said we’d have flying and self driving cars everywhere. While there have been some solid attempts we’re still not much closer. Next while we have some amazing technology, as someone who have flown some of the newest I can tell you the systems ALL have glitches and pilots make errors. I for one would not let my family on a plane with one pilot, let alone none, and most people agree. We’re really very far off from getting these things right on a predictable and consistent basis.
Can it happen? Maybe but I wouldn’t let the possibility ruin my plans for the next 50yrs.
I do not see automation being an issue anytime soon. Trains still require two crew members to operate and they operate one dimensionally. Boeing is currently have a world of trouble with their automation, I can’t imagine how many airplanes have been saved because of the pilots over riding the automation. Sure it may happen some day, but not in my life time.
I have been listening to some aviation podcasts recently and the topic has been brought up from time to time. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it appears to me that IF a single pilot cockpit were to occur it would initially impact cargo flying more than commercial passenger flying?
Yes, I would imagine that it would impact cargo first. Keep in mind that many podcasts are authored by so called “aviation experts” that might be specialists in technology or in the aviation industry, but many have absolutely no idea what it takes to fly an airplane.
Would cargo companies even want to invest that kind of money for single pilot/fully automated flying? Fedex can’t even find the time to refurbish the cockpits of their A300s, and they still have DC-10s flying around. The oldest is over 47 years old!
FedEx is one of the most profitable airlines in the world and they keep old planes because boxes don’t care if the plane is bright and shiny. If and when the technology ever becomes available I’m certain they’ll do the math and if the economics make sense they will.
2 days ago, Airbus completed a test flight that was fully automated. Do you think that in 10-20 years that modern airplanes will be fully autonomous or at least single piloted? Has your view changed at all?
I still do not see this as a big threat. An isolated flight, in ideal weather conditions, is a far cry from normal operations. A flight is dynamic, something is always changing, there is always a new threat. I just don’t see a computer being able to handle all of this anytime soon.
I would again point to the railroads, while they seem to have figure me out how to automate the small trains that run in closed environments like an airport, they still have two crew members on all other trains. The technology is just not there yet.
Who’s going to program the plane for those autonomous functions? Who’s going to override the autonomy when the unexpected happens? Pilots are still (and will be for a long time, I dare say always) an integral part of the operation.
Plus, all of those autonomous functions have weather limitations, all of which are much lower than the plane’s maximum structural limitations. And at any time the technology can fail in flight. Only a pilot would be able to make the split second decisions necessary to avoid danger.
This article does not change my opinion on the subject, but it’s fun to fantasize
I actually saw this article a few days ago and was waiting for someone to bring it up. Here’s an answer from a Boeing engineer:
“They will start slowly in the freight aircraft. Fully automated flight with a “Pilot monitor.” To ensure the automation is performing successfully. It will have 3 ways of control/monitoring. Fully automated, pilot control, and by a pilot/dispatcher from the ground like a drone. Each will have to prove currency of operational control and log the progress similar to what we do now on auto lands. After many years of monitoring proving flights technology changes it will become a reality. But most likely will always have at least one pilot/monitoring at the controls for years.”
Further just take a look at the current industry. The 787 is a sensational aircraft with some of the newest technology. Thing is does every airline fly 787s? No and even those that do fly many other aircraft. Delta for example just got rid of their 30+ year old MD-88s with steam gauges and that was more a response to COVID than the new tech. My point is even when they get this technology down in “many years” it’s never going to get integrated into every aircraft, every fleet and every airline until the world starts looking like the Jetson’s. Pilots are not going away anytime soon.
Those answers from Boeing all sound like fantasy answers of what could happen. Again, this technology exists for railroads, but the railroads and the general public have been rather adamant that they do not want autonomous trains running through their towns.
I don’t remember where I saw this, but I remember reading this quote somewhere “When the dolly starts driving itself to the plane, then I’ll start worrying.” There’s one right now at Heathrow, and it’s been there for a year now. They haven’t expanded it since. I’d say it’ll probably be a while before it becomes close to widespread.