Examining the Future of Automation in Commercialized Flight and its Impact on Airline Pilots

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Timm J. Bliss
Annie J. Wise


The purpose of this study was to focus on the perceptions of an automated (unmanned) flight deck and its intended implementation in the U.S. airline industry. The objective was to understand fully autonomous aircraft’s influence on commercial pilots, as well as investigate the effects on the U.S. airline industry and human-machine interaction. Commercial airline pilots, including ranks of both Captains and First Officers (FO) in Part 121 scheduled service, were the research population for this study. The sample population number was 15 U.S. airline pilots offering various diversity in age, gender, years of service, airline employer, and military or civilian flight experience. The semi-structured qualitative research consisted of developing a deeper understanding of the pilots’ perceptions of the three-pronged approach: (1) the psychological barriers and motives of the pilot, (2) the differences in aircraft ground-based safety and training, and (3) pilots’ understanding of the timeliness of entry for unmanned flight deck operations to reach FAA standards. The study consisted of participant interviews utilizing a series of ten structured and semi-structured interview questions. The findings concluded that pilots are aware of the workload changes that are present with implementing fully autonomous aircraft in the Part 121 category. Two themes became evident when discussing workload changes. First, the role of the pilot changes from a single flight focus to a multi-flight monitor. Secondly, as technology advances, the pilot’s physical workload of hand flying an aircraft will constantly deteriorate. Furthermore, the advancement of a fully automated flight deck and its effects on the U.S. airline industry can potentially have significant impacts on the psychology of commercial airline pilots. While pilot responses varied based on individual experiences, attitudes, and adaptability, there were several psychological responses identified in this study, including (1) loss of control, (2) uncertainty toward technology, (3) job insecurity, and (4) adaptability. Last, the advancement of a fully autonomous flight deck will obviously create additional concerns for U.S. airline passengers. The most significant concerns for passengers included (1) safety, (2) trust, (3) passenger-pilot relationship, and (4) understanding of technology. Passengers will always question if modern technology has been thoroughly evaluated and if it can react to unexpected situations as safely and effectively as a human.

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