Air Cargo Looks to Single-Pilot Jets as Autonomous Flight Nears

Airplane Cockpit
SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg News

Aerospace and innovation have gone hand-in-hand since the days of Orville and Wilbur Wright. Airplanes were once simple metal tubes powered by propellers. Long-haul flying meant four engines and at least three pilots on the flight deck at all times.

Today, aircraft require only two pilots and are built mostly of carbon composites. Even on the longest routes—more than 17 hours—regulators permit airlines to fly with merely two engines. Given the inexorable nature of technological evolution, it seems logical to expect that soon only a single pilot will be required. And beyond that, given the advent of driverless technology on the ground and unmanned aircraft above, could pilotless commercial airliners be far off?

A range of companies, from such aerospace giants as Boeing Co. and Airbus SE to tiny startups, are working on various aspects of a difficult puzzle: how to create the next generation of air travel—one whose pilots are far less ubiquitous and new flying vehicles communicate with each other. More important, how is that world to be as safe as the one we’re in now?“It is not as complicated as it sounds, and it is not as dangerous as it sounds,” said Elpert Hodge, executive vice president of M2C Aerospace Inc., a New England startup working to build a flight system for single-pilot commercial aircraft operations. The startup hopes to meet airlines’ desire to cut costs while addressing a pilot shortage that’s already curtailed air service in some regions. The technology to achieve this is likely to be available soon. The comfort level of regulators and average citizens will almost certainly lag.


“How do we maintain levels of safety that we enjoy today … when you’ve got an artificial intelligence-based system in the cockpit?” Greg Hyslop, Boeing’s chief technology officer, said in September at a conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “How do you show and certify that to be safe to the point where the flying public would say, ‘Yes, I trust that.’”

Airlines are reluctant to even broach the topic, given how passengers may react to being one stricken pilot away from an empty cockpit. And they are more so when it comes to fully automatic aircraft: “It’s certainly not anything that American is working on or trying to make happen,” Doug Parker, chief executive of the world’s largest airline, American Airlines Group Inc., said of autonomous aircraft at an industry forum Sept. 12. “The comfort [pilots] provide is not something that most consumers are going to want to forgo.”

But for the air-cargo industry, where package containers don’t require safety assurances, the prospect of single-pilot operations—and eventually autonomous flight—holds a definite appeal, especially in areas where air cargo growth may outpace pilot supply.

“Clearly, for transporting cargo, you could see autonomous aircraft,” Hyslop said. “It’s going to be much longer, if ever, if we’d see that for passenger travel, though.” That doesn’t matter to Wall Street. Airline analysts are already counting the billions of dollars in savings airlines could reap by culling humans.

“Long-haul commercial flights could see reduced cockpit crews from 2023, shortly after cargo planes,” analysts at UBS Group AG wrote in an extensive July report. They estimated a profit potential of $15 billion for flying with a single pilot and $35 billion if airplanes were to fly themselves.

None of this is as far-fetched as it might seem. Adoption of new technology in aviation has risen significantly over the past few years, according to the UBS report. The analysts conceded, though, that they expect “consumer acceptance to be a challenge.” Surveys by the bank found that 63% of people oppose flying in a pilotless aircraft, while only 52% were averse to single-pilot planes. Then again, what did people think of autonomous cars just a few years ago?

A key component of airline automation will be AI. As the technology spreads into areas from cars to factories to electronics, more consumers are apt to grow comfortable with it.

“There is a percentage of millennials who have no problem with that,” said Hodge, a former pilot. “So as much as you can demonstrate the safety of it, that’s what brings the public along.” Throw in some cost savings and safety concerns begin to dissipate: The same UBS survey found that 50% more people would fly in a single-pilot aircraft if it came with a ticket discount.

The topic has garnered interest in Washington as well. The House version of a budget bill this year funding the Federal Aviation Administration included language that would start a “research and development program in support of single-piloted cargo aircraft assisted with remote piloting and computer piloting.” The measure, which was stripped from the compromise bill signed into law Oct. 5, was introduced by Texas Republican Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. He sought to address concerns regarding major Chinese investments into AI and autonomous flight, according to a committee staffer.


Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tx.) Chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. (Kevin Wolf/Associated Press)

The Cargo Airline Association, which represents carriers such as FedEx Corp. and United Parcel Service Inc., wasn’t involved in the House bill, said Steve Alterman, the association’s president. FedEx Corp. is No. 2 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest for-hire carriers in North America and No. 8 on the list TT Top 50 Logistic Companies in North America. UPS. Inc. is No. 1 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of largest for-hire carriers in North America and the UPS Supply Chain Solutions division is No. 2 on the TT list of the Tops 50 Logistics Companies in North America. While the CAA doesn’t have a position on the idea, pilot associations do: They’re aghast.

“Having anything less than two [pilots] is inviting catastrophe,” said Lee Collins, president of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations, which represents more than 30,000 pilots, including those at American Airlines Group Inc. and UPS.

“This technology is neither mature nor proven yet to the extent that it can ensure safety,” Collins said, adding that autonomous piloting systems are “a terrorist hijacker’s absolute dream come true.” Tim Cannoll, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, the largest U.S. pilot union, echoed his concerns in a recent column: “Single-piloted operations should be totally unacceptable to the American public because they are unsafe.”

Pilots argue that aviation requires human judgment in the cockpit to respond to the myriad unexpected events that can befall a flight. And while pilots and their unions have a vested interest in maintaining the two-pilot system, they have ready examples to drive home their point. Several pointed to the engine explosion aboard a Dallas-bound Southwest Airlines Co. flight in April that killed a passenger. It left a hole in the side of the Boeing 737-700’s fuselage, but the pilot was able to land in Philadelphia with no further injuries.

Air travel, goes the common refrain, is the safest form of transport. Over the past 12 years, technological advances have been accompanied by a remarkable increase in safety all while traffic volume doubled. Globally, carriers will fly an estimated 4.4 billion passengers this year, according to the International Air Transport Association. Crashes are rare. In the U.S., there were no airline fatalities from 2009 to 2018—a period of time encompassing almost 100 million flights.

In many respects, modern aircraft are already automated to the degree that pilots spend a lot of time monitoring instruments while the plane flies automatically. But you’d be mistaken if you were to assume this makes them superfluous.

It’s true that a Boeing 787 or Airbus A350 offers tools that a pilot from the 1980s could only dream about. It’s also true that the world’s airspace is more congested and complex than it’s ever been. American, for example, requires that each plane in its fleet conduct an autopilot approach and automated landing at least once every 60 days.


Boeing 787 being constructed for Norwegian Airlines. (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)

The policy doesn’t apply to American’s Boeing 737s, which operate with a different system. The aircraft flies the approach according to the path programmed into the flight management system (FMS), following all speed and altitude restrictions and optimizing the descent. Instruments guide the aircraft to touchdown and braking. The autopilot disengages once the aircraft slows to taxi speed.

These systems are typically used when visibility is extremely limited and weather is unfavorable. As a passenger, you’ll probably never know when your aircraft lands itself; pilots rarely announce the occasions. This technology, which is employed with two pilots are monitoring its performance, increases an airline’s ability to operate in conditions in which a human would be less capable. People get to their destinations, fewer flights are canceled, and the nation’s economy avoids the costs of delays.

But—and this is the key point pilots make—they can intervene at any time to override the machine’s decisions during the approach and landing.

Hodge’s company, M2C Aerospace, is located about 40 miles west of Boston in the town of Milford, Massachusetts. It wants to become a market leader in devising a flight management system (FMS) for commercial aircraft that doesn’t require two pilots, he said. M2C plans to begin simulator testing early next year, followed by test flights with an ATR turboprop aircraft flying from Antigua, his home country—and whose government is among M2C’s investors.

“My thinking to get the FAA on board is being able to demonstrate safety for two years, no mishaps,” said Hodge, a former pilot and entrepreneur who founded cargo carrier Elan Air and later sold it to DHL Express. M2C is also working to raise $15 million to fund its FMS project, which Hodge predicts will see sales of $500 million in two years and $1 billion within five years.

Memphis-based FedEx has expressed interest in purchasing space on an eventual Caribbean single-pilot cargo operation, Hodge said. A FedEx spokeswoman declined to comment.

“Aviation is getting there,” he said. “It’s not if, it’s when.”