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OPINION: Pilotless commercial flights are coming. What it means for safety

Whenever there is mention of the work I do in a social gathering, the first question that comes forth is “Are you a pilot?”.

Fact of the matter is if you answer “yes”, then you probably have everyone’s attention, if not admiration. A “no” answer will most likely elicit more questions, such as, “You work at the airport?” or “Are you cabin crew?”

For many people, pilots and aviation are one and the same thing. This notwithstanding the fact that in the not so distant future of commercial aviation, pilotless flying will be a reality.

Currently, the autopilot on most modern commercial airliners can do approximately 90% of flying functions, with the other 10% being takeoff which is mostly done manually. After the climb following takeoff, the autopilot is usually engaged and used throughout the flight, and in some cases even for landing.

From a passenger perspective, fear of flying or what might go wrong is a reality for many. You can then only imagine how much amplified this fear would be if passengers are told that there is no one in the cockpit.

Although most career pilots will confess to enjoying hand flying the aircraft more than using the autopilot, in commercial aviation they don’t have much of a choice as the operating procedures and regulation determine when the autopilot is engaged and disengaged.

Despite there being technology today that automates the entire flight process from takeoff to landing without any manual intervention like in the case of drones, one might argue that when the pilotless, unmanned commercial flights happen, they will still require human intercession at least from the ground.

Regardless of the advancements in technology there is always the concern about what would happen in the case of total systems failure. For instance, the autopilot has been recorded to disengage itself during instances of severe turbulence.

Then there are also cases of flights ending disastrously because the pilots assumed that the autopilot knew what it was doing.

On aggregate though, the failure rate of automated systems is still minuscule compared to the glaring human factor failures like fatigue, stress, or loss of concentration.

Whichever way you look at it, technology has made, and continues to make, flying one of the safest forms of travel. According to analysts and going by the status of safety advancements, one would have to take a flight every day for 55,000 years before encountering a fatal accident.

When things go wrong

But such levels of safety enabled by technology and a better understanding of human factors in flying certainly should not replace the emphasis on safety from the passenger side.

Very few passengers listen to safety instructions, yet studies show that those who listen to or adhere to the safety announcements and briefings are much more likely to get through an emergency than those who ignore them.

Take for example the recent case of severe turbulence during Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Bangkok. With 313 passengers on board, 27 were injured. Some of the injured passengers were simply not wearing seatbelts despite the seatbelt-on instructions.

An inconspicuous yet ever repeated phrase during flight safety briefings has to do with taking time to familiarise yourself with the exits on the aircraft.

Passengers seldom actively take note of this instruction, yet fire and smoke are the biggest risks to passengers and crew during an evacuation procedure. Admittedly, many flyers confess to having every now and then thought about their sitting position in the cabin and how it counts towards survival in the unforeseen event of a crash.

While statistics from the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) point to a survival rate of 76% in the case of most devastating airplane crashes (global average 24%), there is no proven or ideal “safest seat in an aircraft”.

However, in a study involving the analysis of 20 commercial jet crashes in the US since 1971, Popular Mechanics magazine concluded that the farther back you sit, the better your odds of survival. In their findings and conclusion, passengers in the rear cabin (near the tail of a plane) have up to a 69% survival chance compared to those seated over the wing at 56% and in first/business class at 49%.

Despite these studies and findings, here is what you need to know when it comes to survival: once seated it is vital to make a mental note of the emergency exits and how far you are from them. If you must evacuate, leave your personal effects behind. Always dress appropriately – it’s not a fashion show neither is it a beach event. Save the high heels and the sandals for later.

Finally, pay attention to that cabin crew and follow their instructions – it’s not a pissing contest.

Michael Otieno is the Managing Partner at SADIM Airline Management Solutions, an aviation consultancy based in Nairobi. Twitter: @mosafariz; Email: [email protected]


  • Sebina Muwanga

    I forgot to add that even for dual/auto lands, pilots deploy reverse thrusters upon landing to assist the brakes slow down the aircraft to safe taxi speed. These is still a manual function.

  • Sebina Muwanga

    Great piece, just that the auto pilot cannot execute a landing on its own. Even during category III dual/auto land procedures, the pilots still have to configure the plane for landing by extending the flaps and lowering the landing gear. These are still manual functions.

    The auto pilot can only land when the pilots have guided it (after following ATC vectors) to the final approach fix and thereafter, the aircraft is fully established on the ILS.

    Even for standard instrument arrival approaches, ATC may have to vector the plane to space or sequence for the approach, depending on airspace usage or demands at the time.

    In addition, after the roll out, the plane has to taxi to stand under ATC guidance, still a manual function, although ATC might be wiped out in a decade or so if “follow the greens” becomes standard at all airports.

    Take offs are still a manual function and the auto pilot may be engaged around 1500 feet above ground, or when available as it is a great tool for flying standard instrument departures.

    Lastly, the auto pilot has modes and may be partly or fully engaged. It may either be auto throttle with lateral and vertical navigation which means the aircraft flies the profile ( speed, heading and altitude)loaded in a the flight management computer, or just auto throttle and vertical navigation but the lateral navigation is managed by pilots following ATC vectors.

    How the auto pilot is used depends on several circumstances and pilots must always monitor it because despite it’s brilliance, it can also be very silly.

    I always compare the auto pilot to a microwave oven. Once commanded, it will heat up food very intelligently. However, it will still heat up even when one inadvertently places plates with folks and knives even if it means self destruction!

    • Kelvin Gathigi

      In as much as i am for technological advancements and the what not..as an aspiring pilot, i for one would like to see my career through to completion not have it end before it even begins.

      • Sebina Muwanga

        Planes will not be pilotless…..

        There will still be pilots somewhere on the ground just like for drones.

        If this ever happens, it will be at least three decades from now….

        • Kelvin Gathigi

          Yea i understand what you are saying but personally i am more of a hands on kinda guy..always where the action is.. not in some ‘bunker’ away from all the fun..as i see it in the future being a pilot wont mean as much but will see where it takes us.

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