Pilotless Planes Could Save Airlines $35 Billion! The Dubai Airshow 2017 Will Have Billions In New Plane Orders — But What About People?

Pilotless planes could save airlines $35 billion, UBS says

  • “Reducing the intervention of human pilots on aircraft could bring material economic benefits and improve safety,” a UBS note said.
  • The bank stated that there could be a material profit opportunity of over $35 billion per year for the aerospace and aviation industry.
  • A recent UBS Evidence Lab Survey of 8,000 people however showed that 54 percent of participants were reluctant to take a pilotless flight.

Looking to the 2017 edition of the Dubai Air Show which promises to be very interesting, we definitely will be promised billions in new plane orders (but not yet of the pilotless kind)

  • Emirates’s possible announcement on their choice of either Boeing’s 787 or Airbus’s A350
  • Boeing & Airbus are sure to have quite a few mega order announcements up their sleeve
  • Airbus will try to steal the thunder from Boeing this time around! [remember Farnborough Airshow]
  • A wait & watch game to see any significant A380 orders placed (or any orders at all)
  • And lots more … not to mention some great static as well as daily flying displays

The airshow will be about planes & more planes, but what about the pilots, engineers, ground staff, …… The industry seems to be ravenous in its demand for more planes & passenger growth, but the appetite for aviation professionals seems to be more muted! (If the headline from UBS is any indication, we know why!)

There always seem to be a race of human versus machine, with the human most times coming out the loser!
The winner this time around — will it be Boeing, Airbus or the aviation professional?

I hope that the Gulf Aviation Training Event [GATE] conference being held during the Dubai Airshow will be able to highlight & spotlight the fact that aviation professionals & their training needs also need to be made a top priority.

On a flight a few days ago, one of the first voices that I heard when all the passengers were seated was that of the pilot welcoming us on board. This very human voice immediately relaxes and reassures that you and your fellow passengers are in safe hands — the capable hands of experienced & well trained aviation professionals.

But then again, the same can be said for virtually aspect of aviation — where passionate professionals ensure that the industry operates at the highest levels of safety, security & service (agreed, the customer service part has definitely scope for improvement!).

Pilots, cabin crew, customer service agents & engineers in their current job roles could soon be relics of the past in a fast changing world. As technology continues to take over traditional jobs & data becomes king, the aviation industry is turning to technology, data & automation to create a seamless experience for the millions of passengers that travel every day.

  • Not too far off in the future — the airport experience will be touch-less, queue-less & human-less. You will be identified and cleared for travel as soon as you step into the airport (maybe as soon as you drive into the car park) thanks to facial recognition & AI
  • Pre-flight aircraft diagnostic checks will be automated & managed from a centralized control room situated a few miles away or perhaps a thousand miles away
  • Your pilot may be hundreds of miles from the plane, flying or rather should I say monitoring the aircraft from the comfort of his or her home with no need to be physically present in the cockpit
  • The on-board experience too will be seamless & very personalized; passenger seating will be smart seats, personalized based on preferences; passengers using their own devices to steam content of their choice with meals pre-packaged as food pods or tablets!
Passengers are literally left to their own devices — with no crew on board!

I am jumping the gun perhaps, as the scenarios above could take a few more decades to play out. But then again, we said the same thing about self-driving vehicles a few years ago. Self-driving vehicles seemed to be part of science fiction, but are very much reality today.

An Intel study is looking at answering a question on many of our minds — Can you ever trust a machine?

Companies are very prone to falling in love with all the technological inventions without taking human factors into consideration. Humans tend to adopt and adapt to technology that helps make life better & easier, but when it comes to transportation solutions, we still tend to place our faith and our lives in the hands of other humans — the drivers, the pilots……

A survey conducted by Gartner conducted recently found that 55% of respondents will not consider riding in a fully autonomous vehicle, while 71% may consider riding in a partially autonomous vehicle.

Ask yourself the question “Will you fly in a plane today that has no pilot on board?” or “Will you fly a plane that has not been inspected by an engineer?”

The future for aviation is mixed — while the industry struggles with over capacity, erratic economic cycles, lack of infrastructure, excessive taxation, over regulation & in some cases under regulation, passenger numbers continue to grow, business models evolve & aviation continues to be one of the safest modes of travel. The last few years have been very profitable for airlines in many parts of the world, with the growth & maturing of new airline business models — the launch of long haul low cost model, the market domination of low cost airlines.

Traditional & full service airlines are looking at creative ways to boost revenue & cut costs. They have boosted ancillary revenue, charging for everything from your baggage, to the seat that you sit in. Will they get more creative? Yes, they will but are fast reaching the threshold of how creative fees can continue to be.

Airlines are now turning their attention to technology in the hope that they can reduce their employee rolls & wage bills — one of their most significant operational costs.

“From the Internet to the advent of smartphones, the last three decades have seen people change the way they work and live to adapt to each new technology capability coming to market.” — Accenture Technology Trends 2017

Words such as revolutionary, transformational, life changing keep popping up, but what we are referring to is technology, not people! Tech gurus say that the world’s most important resource will be data, not people!

But they seem to forget that it is not when things are going right, but when things go wrong that you need human intervention. People will and always will be key to every single industry, aviation included!

The challenge that the workforce faces is that jobs will fall into two main categories — low level routine jobs where machines & technology can’t take over yet & complex jobs requiring a high level of expertise.

For those stuck in the middle, that is where the problem lies! These middle “earth” jobs are those most at risk today — pilots, engineers, operations staff fall under this category.

We also see that as developing markets continue to grow and mature & developed markets age, the workforce of today, no longer find aviation careers attractive in an industry that is 24/7, low paying & stressful. Long gone are the days when pilots & cabin crew jobs were looked on with envy; young professionals today would rather be astronauts, data scientists or renewable energy engineers.

We keep talking about creating the future, when the discussion should be about preparing for it! Too many companies and people are unprepared! Too many airlines today are what are being called “middle seat airlines” not knowing which business model to adopt in changing times, putting thousands of employees at risk.

The industry spends billions of dollars & many years in developing new aircraft, focused on improving fuel efficiency, range & passenger comfort — but spends a pittance on developing people. People are always an after-thought & perhaps are the reason why many parts of the world are struggling with shortages of key personnel.

The high cost of training is also a turn-off for many prospective new aviation professionals, who perhaps do not have access to funding or the support required for training.

All statistics point to growth & more growth! My question is — Will the industry be able to attract the required talent?

  • By 2027 the global commercial fleet is expected to grow by 12,000 aircraft to roughly 37,000 aircraft.
  • A recent CAE study highlights — “The industry will need 255,000 new airline pilots over the next 10 years, for a total of 440,000 active pilots by 2027–60% for fleet growth & 40% to offset retirement and attrition. In addition, 180,000 first officers will need to be promoted to captain, over half of which will be to replace retiring captains.
  • Boeing also highlights the extraordinary demand for people to fly & maintain the tens of thousands of new planes being put into service between now and 2036 — more than 2 million new commercial airline pilots, maintenance technicians, & cabin crew will be needed.
  • Airbus forecasts that over the next 20 years more than a million pilots & technicians will be needed to be trained to the highest levels.
“The airline industry will need to produce 70 new type-rated pilots every single day to meet global demand”

Asia-Pacific will see the strongest growth in pilot demand as the region’s fleet of in-service aircraft is projected to significantly increase in size. The Americas will experience the most pilot retirements.

The changing face of the industry will mean that airline and other stakeholders need to look at adopting & adapting training to suit operational realities both from the equipment as well as the human perspective, without compromising on safety & security. Advances in technology, regulations, operational processes as well as generational mindsets will mean that training has to evolve & reshape with the times.

Airlines need to focus not just on the aircraft of the future, but also on the workforce of the future! It’s not just enough for people to have skills — they need to have the knowledge & experience in order to be truly competent.

“We have to stop thinking about people working for companies and start making companies work for people.

As technology aligns to what we want, and even interacts with us in ways that are naturally human, it’s making the world a more human place. Rather than machines defining our world, they’re putting us squarely in the driver’s seat. It’s delivering unprecedented potential that is enabling us to shape our lives, our industries and our society to fit our needs. What could be more human than that?” — Accenture Technology Vision 2017

Events such as the Dubai Airshow are extremely important they bring the industry together, allowing stakeholders from all sectors of the industry to network, discuss and plan for the future. While airlines and manufacturers announce mega deals for planes, we need to keep in mind that the industry is still very much about people — be it passengers or employees!

Is there a standard recipe or algorithm for success! Unfortunately No! But conferences such as GATE help to create a platform for stakeholders from across the industry to have a dialogue on key “human” challenges of today & the future. A few of the topics to be touched on during the conference;

  • Airline training developments, how is the Middle East keeping ahead of the curve?
  • Technology in training: what else is needed to move with the speed of technology?
  • Evidence based training principles
  • How do you better train a pilot?
  • Aviation engineering training and higher education-certifications and standards
Are there any other topics that you will like to see discussed. Do let me know! It will also be a pleasure to meet up during the Air Show & the GATE conference.

And in conclusion, an appeal to the leaders of the aviation industry — while you focus on aircraft & technology, please also include people as a core part of your strategic road-map! While you focus on your financial balance sheet, always look at your talent balance sheet as well!

Some advice to the new generation of aviation professionals — this will be an industry driven by technology on one side, but will also be more people focused, with the need for motivated individuals in highly specialized roles. Are you ready?

This is a call to action to urgently move away from the focus on “plane” strategies to developing our “human” strategies! Join us on the 13th of November at GATE!

A last question — If you had to choose between planes & people, who would you choose?
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