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Virtual co-pilot program
Boeing and the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Simulation and Training have developed a pilot training program that makes use of a virtual-reality co-pilot avatar. (Boeing Photo)

If Boeing is projecting a doubling in the global commercial airplane fleet over the next 20 years, it only makes sense that the pilot workforce may have to double as well.

That’s the conclusion that Boeing reaches in its 2018 Pilot & Technician Outlook, released today. The upshot? There’ll be a demand for 790,000 pilots over the next 20 years, representing “the most significant demand in the outlook’s nine-year history,” Boeing says.

“Despite strong global air traffic growth, the aviation industry continues to face a pilot labor supply challenge, raising concern about the existence of a global pilot shortage in the near term,” Keith Cooper, vice president of training and professional services at Boeing Global Services, said in today’s news release. “An emphasis on developing the next generation of pilots is key to help mitigate this.”

Last year’s acute pilot shortage at Horizon Air, a regional subsidiary of Seattle-based Alaska Air Group, illustrated the complexity and potential repercussions of the supply-vs.-demand challenge. Horizon’s flight schedule had to be sharply curtailed, due to bottlenecks and workplace issues that had been building up for years.

If the demand for pilots rises as Boeing anticipates, that will only add to the existing challenges.

Cooper said Boeing is addressing the challenges by partnering with customers, governments and educational institutions on pilot training programs.

The centerpiece of Boeing’s effort is its Pilot Development Program, which is aimed at guiding future pilots for the very start of their training through type training as a first officer.

Technological and cultural innovations figure into Boeing’s response to the challenge. For example, Boeing and its research partners at the University of Central Florida and other institutions have developed virtual-reality and augmented-reality tools to streamline pilot training programs — in some cases, using Microsoft’s HoloLens mixed-reality headset.

“The growing diversity and mobility of aviation personnel will also require instructors to have cross-cultural, cross-generational and multilingual skills to engage with tomorrow’s workforce,” Boeing said.

The outlook says the highest demand for pilots in the 2018-2037 time frame is likely to be in the Asia-Pacific region, where air traffic is expected to rise dramatically. Here are the breakdowns by region and by aircraft type:

New pilot demand, 2018-2037
Boeing projects that 261,000 pilots will be needed for the Asia-Pacific region, with North America No. 2 on the list with 206,000 pilots needed. Most of the demand will relate to commercial jets, with lesser numbers needed for business jets and helicopters. Click on the image for a larger version. (Boeing Graphic)

The potential for future pilot shortages is one of the factors behind Boeing’s interest in autonomous flight systems. Next year, as part of its ecoDemonstrator flight test research program, the company is planning to try out new technologies for auto-takeoff, auto-taxi and collision avoidance using a modified 787 Dreamliner jet.

Such tests could eventually open the way for the wider use of artificial intelligence in flight control, which could conceivably lead to changes in pilot staffing policies.

Autonomous flight could have an early impact on emerging air-taxi services as well as cargo delivery. Aurora Flight Sciences, a Boeing subsidiary, is already working on an autonomous air vehicle that Uber may use for taxi-style transport. And at last week’s Farnborough Air Show, Boeing showed off the latest design concept for an autonomous Cargo Air Vehicle that could deliver shipments as heavy as 500 pounds.

Mike Sinnett, Boeing Commercial Airplanes’ vice president of product development, told journalists last year that aviation trends are pointing toward putting more automation in the cockpit.

“There’s going to be a transition away from the requirement to have a skilled aviator operating the airplane tactically, to having a system that operates the vehicle autonomously – if we can do that at the same levels of safety, integrity and availability that we have today,” Mike Sinnett, Boeing Commercial Airplanes’ vice president of product development, told journalists last year.

But Sinnett stressed that if an autonomous flight control system doesn’t meet the current safety standards for human pilots, that system just won’t fly with Boeing.

“I would be perfectly happy if what came out of this whole study is that we need more pilots, and we’re going to commit to training and ensuring that we have the right levels of experience and competence,” he said.

In other market segments:

  • Boeing projects a demand for 622,000 new maintenance technicians for commercial airplanes over the next 20 years. That’s slightly lower than past forecasts, primarily due to longer maintenance intervals for new aircraft. The industry is projected to need 89,000 new technicians for business jets, and 43,000 for helicopters, Boeing said.
  • The demand outlook raised expectations slightly for new cabin crew members, from 839,000 to 858,000 new employees for commercial airliners. The increase is due to expected changes in fleet mix, regulatory requirements, denser seat configurations and passenger service enhancements. Another 32,000 new cabin crew will be required to support business aviation, Boeing said.
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