This issue of CAT Magazine is our annual Sourcebook edition, and it always coincides with the yearly forecast season, as well as the flurry of new aircraft orders that always accompany either the Paris or Farnborough Airshow. New pilot demand forecasts emerge at nearly the same time, with the yearly ever higher projections typically stimulating a short-lived barrage of industry and public media commentary.
True to form, Boeing projects a new pilot demand figure of 790,000 pilots over the next 20 years – last year the forecast was 637,000 - which represents a doubling of the present workforce, and of course one of the drivers is the corresponding doubling of the air transport fleet over the same time frame. And that fleet growth estimate is always validated by the annual air show sales announcements from Airbus and Boeing. At Farnborough the two aircraft vendors announced firm orders and commitments for almost 1,000 aircraft, valued at some US$160 billion, up from the approximate 900 new sales announced at Paris last year.
With narratives such as these, it is no wonder that many pundits are zeroing in technological innovation being a potential mitigator to the industry’s human resource struggle. Narratives about a coming new era that will see single pilot jet transport operations are increasingly being heard, including commentary that such developments will help alleviate the current challenges associated with pilot demand and supply. Farnborough was bursting at the seams with technological innovation displays, including a myriad of new drone technologies, flying taxis and cars, several programs to re-introduce commercial supersonic transports, electrical propulsion programs - for both GA and airline transport - as well as pilotless aircraft.
As an industry simulation and training professional, I have long noticed that the yearly aircraft and pilot demand forecasts, and disruptive new technology announcements, never seem to have a strong accompanying training narrative. I do not wish to minimize the progressive training programs that both aircraft OEMs and individual airlines have implemented, but asking questions about how more than three-quarters of a million pilots will be found and trained for this global fleet expansion is on-going, and I am not the only one who has noticed that there are few good answers and little sign of national strategies. Further, stories in the media about the arrival of single pilot jet transport operations also do not have a training narrative, let alone any mention of what type of training and licensing will be required to operate the apparent arrival of flying cars and taxis. Will we see the latter in commercial airspace?
The advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies to augment aviation decision making is certainly creating a certain hype, and there’s little doubt that these technologies will have a positive role in a new generation of avionics. But to suggest that they will help facilitate single pilot commercial operations and provide quick “relief” for pilot supply challenges is premature at best, irresponsible at worst. It’s not that the technology isn’t possible - mostly its already here - it’s about safety, training footprints and operational realities. Crew fatigue issues with just one pilot on-board, and flight deck security certainly come to mind, but the entire global training system is based on the first officer as an apprentice step before taking on the responsibilities of a captain. In long haul operations the cost of one pilot is marginal when compared to the cost of operating the equipment including fuel. And it must be said that public opinion is not supportive - one poll concluded that only 13 percent of respondents would fly in a jet with a single pilot. Perhaps these respondents were aware of the recent experiences with the testing of driverless cars.
In an industry that is necessarily conservative, reducing cockpit numbers will require enormous testing and certification, not to mention the cost of both retrofitting fleets and totally new aircraft designs. The regulatory impact would be staggering and the training redesign issues eye-watering. The industry cultural change needed to manage such a new pilot role is a fundamental issue.
In my observation, we always underestimate the complexities of managing significant change. Let’s be careful what we wish for.
Safe Travels, Chris Lehman, CAT Editor in Chief
Published in CAT issue 4/2018