When the first jet-engine powered airliner, the de Havilland DH 106 Comet, was introduced into service in 1952, it had a crew of four — two pilots, a flight engineer, and a navigator. As the years passed, technology improved and this brought about a variety of aeronautical navigational aids into play, such as the VOR (VHF omnidirectional range), ADF (automatic direction finder), and most importantly satellite-based GPS (Global Positioning System).
Around 1965, the dedicated navigator had its last flight. In the same year, McDonnell Douglas launched their DC-9 airliner, the first aircraft to have eliminated the need of a flight engineer. Two years later, Boeing followed suit with the ubiquitous 737 that is still in production today.
Today, technology in aircraft has come a very long way. Aircraft are capable of landing themselves with no input whatsoever from the pilots, and drones carry out many of the military operations that are considered too hazardous or unimportant for human-operated fighters. The US Air Force (USAF) has recently been training twice the number of drone (or UAV — unmanned aerial vehicle) as it trains fighter pilots. Clearly, technology has now caught up to the point where act of death dealing, ironically, does not need to involve a human presence. But what about the airline transport industry?
Here’s where it gets significantly more murky. Safety is absolutely paramount in the industry, triply so when passengers are involved (some of them tend to get litigious, ya know?), and existing statistics do not lend themselves to favour complete automation in the air transport industry.
Since the drone program began, the USAF has acquired 269 Predator drones. Forty percent have crashed in Class A accidents (the most severe category) and an additional 8 percent have been wrecked in Class B accidents. That’s nearly 50 percent of all the Predator drones the USAF has even taken delivery of written off. Many of the incidents were due to pilot inattention, as well as due to insufficient sensory output to the drone operators. In June 2013, Army safety officials posted a bulletin noting that their drones had crashed at 10 times the rate of manned Army aircraft over the previous nine months.
Such mishap rates are not even profitable for cargo or mail operators, much less for transporting individuals across the Atlantic where the incident rates number well below one in 10 million flights. The numbers are even more damning when considering that UAVs are technically still manned aircraft, and complete and utter automation is possibly even more risky. This would certainly necessitate the presence of at least one, if not two pilots in the cockpit — practically akin to what we have today.
Even if this safety hurdle is successfully crossed, there is still the matter of public perception. While self-driving trains and road vehicles were accepted with not much public resistance, the spectre that is the fear that air travel already induces in people will be extremely difficult to banish. The first few years of fully automated flights will be nothing but a loss-maker for airlines, for most people will shun that option.
That’s not all. Airlines and aircraft manufacturers also seek to lose huge amounts of money in the transitory period during the switch to full automation. Airliners’ cockpits have never been designed for single-pilot operation, which will certainly be necessary even with full automation due to the possibility of an in-flight emergency. Flight decks are just not designed to allow one person to handle the workload of two pilots at once. There have been such cases in emergency scenarios, but it is currently unfeasible to adopt this practice for normal operations, and the above statistics definitely rule out remote or fully automated operation.
As such, when transitioning over to remote or full automation, airlines and aircraft manufacturers will have to commit to a costly re-design and re-training programme which might even eclipse the costs of the R&D for a new airframe.
However, the president of R.W. Mann & Co., an airline consulting firm based in New York, believes the largest hurdle is not any of the issues described above, but in insuring the aircraft themselves.
Here is what he had this to say to Business Insider last year:
[Full automation of the commercial aviation industry] won’t happen in my lifetime. It would take a sea change on behalf of the insurance industry.
– Bob Mann, President of R.W. Mann & Co.
As it stands today, there is not an insurer in the world that will agree to insure a transport aircraft with less than two pilots. The fallout in the event of an accident would be through the roof — not just in terms of the payouts, but also in terms of accountability. An executive from LIU Singapore revealed (on the condition of anonymity) that most insurance firms are as-of-yet unwilling to associate themselves with a fully automated transport aircraft. That could certainly change, but definitely not so in the foreseeable future.
Nevertheless, there are experts who do believe that automation in all three forms of transport (air, land, and sea) is inevitable. Some even believe this will be the case in just a few decades, and that the biggest bottleneck will be the regulatory bodies — namely the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the International Air Transport Association (IATA), and the various regional certification bodies like the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA).
Will you fly in an automated aircraft?