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Robots flying planes? Boeing projects a demand for nearly 1.2 million new pilots and technicians

Commercial planes are on autopilot from almost gate to gate is: “up there among the most insulting and misleading characterization of how commercial airplanes are flown.” According to Patrick Smith who is an active airline pilot and author of the New York bestselling book Cockpit Confidential.

Smith also seeks to discredit headlines and comments such as Toronto’s The Globe and Mail which leads with: “Aviation is Fast Approaching the Post-Pilot Era.” An article which quotes David Learmount, a “veteran aviation expert,” who predicts that “pilots won’t be in cockpits in 15 years but in an airline’s operations room, rather like the U.S. Air Force pilots flying Global Hawks [military drones].” “What utter and shameless rubbish;” says Smith.

Debunking the oft-cited claim of planes that fly themselves he writes in the New York Times: “the notion of the automatic airplane that “flies itself” is perhaps the most stubborn myth in all of aviation.”

Seeking to clarify the use of autopilot technology, the role of the pilots and the challenges of pilotless commercial airlines on his personal blog (AskThePilot.com) Smith notes that:

Cockpit automation is merely a tool, and it needs to be told what to do, how to do it, when to do it and where. And though a pilot’s hands aren’t gripping the steering column for hours at a time, as it might have in the 1930s, they are manipulating, operating, and commanding the various systems and subsystems that carry you to your destination.

To back up some of Smith’s sentiment Boeing recently released it’s annual forecast: Pilot and Technician Outlook which looks at the long-term forecast of the demand for pilots and technicians and provides Boeing’s estimate of personnel needed to fly and maintain the tens of thousands of new commercial jetliners expected to be produced over the next 20 years. The factors in changing market forces affecting the industry.

The outlook states:

As global economies expand and airlines take delivery of tens of thousands of new commercial jetliners over the next 20 years, there will be unprecedented demand for people to pilot and maintain these airplanes. To meet this tremendous growth, the 2015 Boeing Pilot and Technical Outlook forecasts that between now and 2034, the aviation industry will need to supply more than one million new aviation personnel—558,000 commercial airline pilots and 609,000 maintenance technicians.

Boeing outlook

Whilst the future is always unclear, the immediate (10/20 years) future is a little less hazy and Boeing’s outlook certainly indicates robots will not replace pilots and technicians anytime soon.

Not wanting to sound like a technical Luddite, I would rather think of pilotless planes as something similar to the thoughts of the brilliant historian Robert Conquest who wrote about the “Dragons of Expectation.” Which summon up images of apocalyptic destruction through the beating of their wings and suggests the process by which ideas can produce visions of radical transformation that in turn may lead to manias and dogmas. Conquest showed that progress is never linear or without disruption and interruption.

As with driverless cars and pilotless planes, much depends on humans for legal clarifications and legislation approval and years and years of test data, and let’s not forget the human customers ‘willingness’ — 83 % of people who voted in a Debate.org poll said there was “not a chance in hell” they would board a pilotless plane. Taking into consideration many of these factors some industry ‘experts’ expect cargo airlines “ditching the crew completely by around 2035.” And many more years before the same will happen for passenger flights.

Based on current developments, technological as well as social and political, I think it is going to be several decades (2040 onwards?) before we will see pilotless commercial airlines with hundreds of passengers onboard.

In the meantime let’s dismiss some of the hype around robots taking jobs and instead welcome Boeing’s forecast of increased jobs for pilot’s and engineers and keep in mind Conquest’s thoughts of “clearing the dragons of expectation out of our mental skies.”

See also – National Geographic’s interview with Patrick Smith.