The pilot shortage is real. Airlines, and the United States Air Force even, are desperately trying to put pilots in cockpits. This deficiency has had lead the Air Force to consider pulling fighter pilots out of retirement, and the FAA has already raised the retirement age for pilots to prevent a mass exodus from the airline sector. While this is excellent news for those who are about to become airline pilots, the pilot shortage is not going to get solved by a mass hiring of pilots.
An annual forecast released by Boeing revealed that there will be 41,000 new airliners purchased between 2017 and 2036, which means that airlines would need to find and train 637,000 new pilots to fly them. While this might seem promising, I can assure you that the airlines will not be hiring that many pilots in the near future. In fact, they will probably stop hiring pilots by 2025.
Modern airliners possess the advanced fly-by-wire technology, and this automation system is used from wheels up to wheels down on most routine airline flights. Due to this technique, pilots only take the controls for a short time during the flight. From where we are currently at, it is just a small leap in the technological field to replace the pilot entirely, and I believe that this technology is will be achieved in less than a decade. I know what you’re thinking, there is no way anyone would fly on a pilotless plane, and regulations ensure that two pilots are in the cockpit at all times. However, a little thing called money will change everything. Salaries in the United States are on the rise, and if the airlines don’t have to pay pilots than the industry could save $35 billion, which would lead to cheaper tickets, safer flying, and fewer cancellations. Computers don’t have families, they don’t get tired, they don’t make bad decisions, computers only do what they are programmed to do, and after over thirty years of fly-by-wire technology, aircraft are at the point of achieving full automation. If this endeavor saves a significant enough amount of money, then companies will lobby and remove the regulations on pilots in the cockpit, but what about the public opinion?
While currently very little people would be willing to fly on unmanned airliners, a survey of 8,000 people by UBS analysts found that only 17% of those people would be willing to fly on a pilotless flight. This opinion, however, is ready to flip thanks to driverless cars. When driverless technology becomes fully operational in the next few years, consumers will begin to trust automated transportation, especially since you’re more likely to die in a car crash than an aircraft accident. At this point, public opinion is the only thing holding back an unmanned future for commercial aviation. In fact, Airbus has already begun work on converting and testing fully autonomous systems for their aircraft. Cargo companies like FedEx and UPS will probably take advantage of this technology first as a cost-saving measure for cargo shipping.
Becoming a pilot is more expensive than ever for a civilian, and you will not see a return on that investment for more than twenty years after the start of your career. Now that there may not even be a career for airline pilots in twenty years it may accelerate this transition as fewer and fewer pilots pursue airliners and instead pursue corporate or other commercial work. I can hear you getting upset with this future and personally, so am I as a pilot myself, so I do not want to see this future come to fruition.
However, even though this is not future we want, it may indeed be the future we get, and it’s already happening around us with drone delivery systems and unmanned aerial taxis. We can yell, scream, and try and prevent this future but money is money, and the industry will follow it. We either continue pursuing our careers till this future is upon us or read the writing on the wall and develop skills no computer can replace. Aviation jobs, like all jobs, are not immune to an automation takeover.