The pilotless airliner is no longer unthinkable. It is just a matter of time before airliners have one pilot, and soon after that they will have none.
The first one-pilot commercial air transport aircraft will be freighters, and that sector will almost certainly blaze the trail to the pilotless passenger aircraft. That will be a cockpitless airliner in which first class passengers will occupy the window seats at the sharp end.
The aircraft might have a pilot standing by for emergencies, but s/he will be back at base.
What are the indicators?
Airliners are already highly automated, and pilots are increasingly being told not to interfere with the automation. Meanwhile it is already accepted – or even status quo – that unmanned autonomous or remotely piloted air vehicles will take over many of the military and general aviation tasks now performed by aircraft with a cockpit.
Although serious airline accidents are now more rare than they have ever been, that is the result of improvements in aircraft and systems design, not of a Darwinian improvement in pilot skills.
In fact the effect on pilot mental skills of the high levels of automation is a serious worry to the industry.
Accidents resulting from pilot inability to cope when the automation or guidance fails – or when it is simply not available – are becoming the new killers. The common serious accidents now are loss of control or controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) resulting from pilot failure to monitor, believe or understand what is going on. You will find a brief description of this concern and the potential consequences in a blog entry I wrote a few weeks ago.
The main barrier to pilotless commercial aircraft operation is the primitive air traffic control system we have at present. Although controllers are provided with predictive as well as actual traffic information now, the system is completely human-driven. From about 2020 this will begin to change, and by 2030 controllers will not control traffic, they will be available in case something anomalous happens. That’s like the airline pilot’s job has been for some time, but air traffic management is about 30 years behind onboard systems.