The commercial aviation industry will face considerable labor shortages in experienced aircrew. In the next 20 years, Boeing projects worldwide demand for 790,000 pilots, with demand for 261,000 in the Asia-Pacific and 206,000 in North American regions alone. American Airlines expects 75% of its pilot force to retire in the next 15 years and Delta Airlines expects more than half of its pilots to reach the mandatory retirement age in the next 10 years. The U.S. Air Force, long a supplier of experienced pilots for U.S. airlines, is also under labor pressure with its own shortage of 2,000 pilots in 2018.
In the aftermath of the 2009 Colgan Air 3407 crash, the Federal Aviation Administration levied additional requirements for U.S. pilots to act as first officers (copilots) on commercial airlines and increased minimum flight hours from 250 to 1,500. In the United States, an aspiring commercial pilot can take several years and significant cost in flight instruction to meet the new flight hour minimum for certification.
The combination of increased demand, increased barriers to entry, and future outflow of experienced aircrew results in a problem that cannot be solved in the short-term with additional personnel and opens consideration of non-traditional technical solutions.
Why does machine learning matter to the aviation industry and Boeing in particular?
“Machine learning at its core, is a set of statistical methods meant to find patterns of predictability in datasets.” While machine learning in a manufacturing context is used to optimize automated production methods to increase yield and optimize efficiency, opportunities also exist for machine learning to aid in the safe operation of aircraft.
The amount of data available to pilots in modern commercial airliners is immense—in addition to aircraft performance data, pilots have detailed information on surrounding traffic, real-time weather conditions at worldwide airports, and integrated autopilot systems all in environments with increasingly congested air traffic. With the decline in available pilots, the aviation industry should consider investments in machine learning to develop more sophisticated autopilots to assist—not replace—fewer experienced pilots in the cockpit.
Boeing, one of the world’s largest manufacturer of wide-body commercial aircraft, has incentive to continued fulfillment of orders for its aircraft even in an environment of increasingly constrained labor supply. While experienced pilots cannot be quickly created in the short-term, Boeing has positioned itself to succeed from machine learning developments through company acquisition and creation of a venture investment division.
What is Boeing doing in the near and mid-term?
Boeing acquired Aurora Flight Sciences, a company which specializes in the application of autonomy to advanced aircraft, and intends for the subsidiary to operate a new Aerospace & Autonomy Center located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Boeing also established an internal venture investment division, HorizonX Ventures, to invest in start-up companies which focus on artificial intelligence, machine learning, autonomous systems, and other areas that would help Boeing incorporate breakthrough technologies into its aircraft and systems.
These investments will help Boeing stay relevant through future produce development cycles with an ability to easily incorporate technologies sourced from these organizations. Research developed through subsidiaries and portfolio companies will take time to incorporate into Boeing’s mainline products, but the company will be better positioned than competitors to harness those breakthroughs early in a development cycle rather than through an ad-hoc addition at the end of development.
What next steps should Boeing’s management take?
First, Boeing’s management should be proactive with the FAA to mitigate effects of delayed regulation on potential benefits of machine learning in a time of increasingly congested airspace. The aviation industry is heavily safety-focused, which incentivizes regulatory agencies to move slowly to incorporate innovations. The more Boeing can encourage technical solutions through the FAA, the more the aviation industry will benefit.
Second, Boeing should partner with air freight carriers to introduce the company’s machine learning products to mitigate potential risk to passengers. Freight carriers face the same labor shortages during increased demand as commercial airlines and share the same incentives to improve their efficiency and safety.
What limits should be imposed on commercial aviation for use of machine learning assisted technical methods to assist aircrew?
Would passengers be comfortable with one less pilot in the cockpit? With none?
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 Robert Wall and Andrew Tangel. “Pilot Shortage Squeezes Airlines.” Wall Street Journal, Aug 09, 2018, Eastern edition. http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/2085461362?accountid=11311, accessed November 2018.
 Stephen Losey. “Air Force 2019 budget will grow pilot training pipeline as service fights severe shortage.” Air Force Times, Feb 13, 2018. https://www.airforcetimes.com/news/your-air-force/2018/02/13/air-force-2019-budget-will-grow-pilot-training-pipeline-as-service-fights-severe-shortage/, accessed November 2018.
 “FAA Boosts Aviation Safety with New Pilot Qualification Standards.” Federal Aviation Administration press release (Washington D.C., July 10, 2013) https://www.faa.gov/news/press_releases/news_story.cfm?newsId=14838, accessed November 2018.
 Anastassia Fedyk. “How to tell if machine learning can solve your business problem.” Harvard Business Review Digital Articles, Nov 25, 2016.
 “Boeing to Acquire Aurora Flight Sciences to Advance Autonomous Technology Capabilities” Boeing Company press release (Chicago, IL, October 5, 2017) https://boeing.mediaroom.com/2017-10-05-Boeing-to-Acquire-Aurora-Flight-Sciences-to-Advance-Autonomous-Technology-Capabilities, accessed November 2018.
 Boeing Company, “Shaping the future of mobility,” http://www.boeing.com/company/key-orgs/aerospace-autonomy-research-center/?utm_source=aurora-website&utm_medium=home-page-slider&utm_campaign=aac-announcement&utm_content=button-boeing-site, accessed November 2018.
 Boeing Company, “Boeing Forms New Innovation Cell; Invests in Tech Companies Upskill, Zunum Aero,” https://boeing.mediaroom.com/2017-04-05-Boeing-Forms-New-Innovation-Cell-Invests-in-Tech-Companies-Upskill-Zunum-Aero, accessed November 2018.