“The technology for unmanned aircraft has long been in place,” announced the head of German air traffic control at the time, Klaus-Dieter Scheurle, almost four years ago with full conviction. Not least, drone technology has accelerated the development that the human factor no longer appears to be entirely indispensable even on board modern commercial aircraft. The aircraft industry and with it the supervisory authorities and airlines are looking for ways to gradually make the most expensive employees in the industry, the pilots, superfluous and to replace them with artificial intelligence in the future.
In “Project Connect”, Airbus wants to make extreme long-haul routes possible for a crew of two, as the aircraft would only have to be controlled and monitored by one person over long periods of time thanks to technical support. The other could take a break outside the cockpit so that longer flight times would be possible. According to media reports, Cathay Pacific Airways could already carry out such flights with an Airbus A350 in 2025 and thus save the previously mandatory third person in the cockpit.
But that is by no means the end, because today there are already only two pilots in most commercial aircraft. The flight engineer, which was previously mandatory, is long gone and the autopilot has been steering for a long time. “We will certainly experience the cockpit with one pilot in the next 30 years,” says aviation consultant Gerald Wissel from Airborne. With smaller jets with up to eleven passengers, the single pilot is already a reality.
The presence in the large commercial aircraft will also be gradually reduced and relocated to initially still human controllers on the ground, expects Wissel. Before doing this, it must be possible to shorten the data transmission times and to effectively protect the systems from external attacks. The expert warns, however, that flying is the sole responsibility of a control computer.
Counter arguments from the pilots
The pilots are alarmed and bring weighty counter-arguments into the discussion via the international associations and committees. “We don’t believe that safety is increased if you do without pilots. And it doesn’t get cheaper either,” says Max Scheck, the drone expert from the German Cockpit Association (VC), for example.
The European pilots’ association ECA warns of change problems in the entire training system and refers to human skills for error analysis and problem-solving skills in the team. From the point of view of the association, the mutually supporting and controlling crew members are also the last line against hacker attacks and faulty designs, as with the latest edition of the Boeing 737-Max.
The VC representative Scheck also demands a new type of safety culture when assessing aircraft accidents. He points to NASA studies, according to which irregularities occurred in every fifth flight, which the crews had mastered in many millions of cases. These events should be taken into account as well as the few errors.
The association ECA also refers to cases in which the pilots alone saved the aircraft and the lives of the passengers. The most famous is certainly the ditching of an Airbus A320 on the Hudson River near New York by Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger in 2009. On the other hand, in March 2015, a controller on the ground could very likely have prevented the deaths of 150 people than one mentally ill co-pilot crashed a Germanwings jet in the French Alps. The man had locked his captain out of the cockpit.
Lufthansa has so far kept a low profile on the new concepts. The certification is a matter for the manufacturer in cooperation with the supervisory authorities, says a spokeswoman in Frankfurt. One is always open to advice and comments, but is neither addressed nor part of the project on this matter.
In any case, the great unknown in the planning remains the attitude of the customers, who so far have tended to refuse to entrust their lives to a machine. The former head of air traffic control, Scheurle, believed that a fundamental change was possible as early as 2018. “The only obstacles to far-reaching automation are the concerns of the airlines, who fear that their passengers will be accepted if there is no longer a pilot in the front of the cockpit.” However, society is moving towards automated mobility in cars. “If it works there, confidence in unmanned aircraft will grow too.”