- Sergio Perez/Reuters
With autonomous driving on the way, the natural progression is to consider the possibilities of autonomous or pilotless air travel.
It’s certainly not beyond the realm of possibility. After all, most modern commercial aircraft possess some sort of semiautonomous flight capabilities. But regardless of how advanced these planes are, they all require at least two pilots to be at the controls.
(Some smaller general-aviation aircraft require only one pilot.)
But what if one day the airline industry could operate without pilots? It would certainly change the complexion of the industry.
After all, costs such as salaries, pensions, training, and the threat of pilot shortages could be done away with.
According to an analyst note published by UBS in August, pilotless flight could save the airline industry as much as $30 billion over two decades.
Of that, $26 billion would come from no longer having to pay pilots. Another $3 billion would come from cheaper insurance and lower training costs. The remaining $1 billion would be saved from optimized operations from new pilotless technology.
Pilotless flight wouldn’t come to fruition overnight. Instead, it’s expected to take place in phases. Over the past 30 years, technology has rendered the navigator and the flight engineer obsolete, reducing the flight crew to two from four. With further development, the thinking goes, the workload in the cockpit will be further reduced to a point where only one pilot is required before autonomous technology renders human pilots unnecessary.
UBS, however, doesn’t expect full pilotless flight to be implemented before 2030.
There are still some major challenges, the most difficult of which is persuading people to board a plane without a pilot.
In a recent study conducted by UBS, 54% of the 8,000 people surveyed by the firm said they would be unlikely to take a pilotless flight. According to UBS, the four groups least likely to board a pilotless plane were students and unemployed people, nervous flyers or those concerned with aviation safety, those who book travel over the phone, and women.
Among those most likely to fly on a pilotless plane were people ages 18 to 34, people from the US, business travelers, and people who book their travel on location or through email.