Would you fly on a plane with just one pilot, or no pilot?
In the old days commercial jets had 3 people in the flight deck, 2 pilots and a flight engineer. In the past few decades computers did away with the flight engineer and no one seemed to mind. Now computer technology is getting ready to cut that down to one and even zero pilots. Boeing has revealed they are working on autonomous control technology allowing planes to be flown without pilots.
This should come as no surprise since pilotless military drones have been in service for many years. The key difference of course is the willingness of passengers fly with only one or no pilots up front. The transition to pilotless aircraft will take time and it will start with single pilots flying cargo jets where there are no passengers to worry about. In fact, according to a story in Forbes, the FAA is about to study the idea of cargo planes with a single pilot. This makes sense from a safety standpoint and certainly from a passenger standpoint. Another major push towards single-pilot flight is the current shortage of qualified pilots, a problem that looks to only get worse.
You can see where this is headed. Just like with self-driving cars, as technology advances and people get more familiar and more comfortable with the idea it will gain wider acceptance. In many ways, it is much simpler to make a self-flying airplane than a self-driving car. But the bottom line will be if passengers are willing to get on a plane and fly to their destination with only a computer in control. We think it is going to take a while for most flyers to be comfortable enough to fly like this. In the meantime they will probably allow cargo flights with a single pilot soon, and study the safety record of that change for a decade or more. If that transition is smooth you can expect pilotless cargo planes to come next. It won’t happen soon but we wouldn’t at all be surprised to see future passenger aircraft, maybe 20 or 30 years from now, without a human pilot.
What do you think, would you fly on a plane with just one pilot, or no pilot?