Pilotless Planes on the Horizon; Airlines Eye Huge Savings

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The technology needed for planes to fly 100 percent autonomously, with no input from a human pilot, could be viable as early as 2025, Ivana Kottasova of CNN reports. Taking pilots off of the payroll could save the airline industry $34 billion a year in training, salaries, and other staffing-related costs, and an additional $1 billion in fuel costs, as pilotless planes would fly more efficiently.

If those savings were passed on to consumers, tickets in the US could cost as little as $40 apiece. But few Americans would buy them, a survey suggests. UBS polled 8,000 people and found that just 17 percent would be “likely” to board a plane with a vacant cockpit.

Of those surveyed, 54 percent said they would be unwilling to take a pilotless flight.

Today, aircraft technology is largely automated: planes land using onboard computer systems, and autopilot is engaged most of the time. Pilots only fly manually for a few minutes per flight, Kottasova writes.

But, autopilot does not mean a plane is flying itself. Pilots are monitoring systems and gauges, communicating with air traffic controllers, and “preparing for the next phase of the flight,” according to Kottasova.

The UBS report indicates that new technology could remove pilots from the equation entirely. ”The technologies in development today will enable the aircraft to assist and back up the pilot in all the flight phases, removing the pilot from manual control and systems operations in all types of situations,” it states.

The technology comes as analysts anticipate a pilot shortage across the industry in the coming years. According to CNN’s Jon Ostrower, a report by Boeing suggests that airlines across the globe will purchase 41,000 planes over the next 20 years, and will need to staff an additional 637,000 pilots to fly them. North American airlines will need 117,000 new pilots.

But, 42% of US pilots are scheduled to retire in the next decade, and military and regional carriers, which Ostrower calls “the farm team for training and recruitment [of pilots] in the U.S.,” are struggling to find prospective pilots. The US regional airline corps has only 19,000 members, Ostrower says.

Pilot unions deny any shortage but say that whatever scarcity does exist is because salaries are not sufficient to attract people to the profession.

“A diminishing number [of pilots] have been willing to commit the time and money to their education and training when the return on investment is somewhere between unpredictable and financially ruinous,” writes airline pilot and travel blogger Patrick Smith, per Ostrower.

American Airlines, Delta and United have all increased pilots’ hourly wages.

With labor costs rising and the crop of trainees diminishing, it seems the shift to pilotless planes cannot come fast enough for the airlines. However, pilot unions would do everything they could to prevent staffing cutbacks, and somebody would need to convince passengers that pilotless aircraft are safe and reliable.

Airlines would need to lobby for regulation overhauls, as well. At the moment, federal law requires two people to be present in the cockpit and actively engaged in the flight at all times, Kottasova says. When the pilot or copilot takes a break, another member of the crew must take the absent pilot’s place until he or she returns. In order to enact the budget cuts promised by pilotless planes, airlines would need to change this rule and others.

In light of these obstacles, experts expect commercial planes to be the last to go pilotless. Cargo planes will likely lead the charge into the future, as boxes do not share human beings’ apprehensions with regard to mortality.

The UBS report did indicate, per the Guardian, younger and more educated respondents were more likely to embrace pilotless planes than others. “This bodes well for the technology as the population ages,” said the report.

Featured image via Flickr/Liam Allport

I'm Will Black. Pleased to meet you. In case you haven't noticed, there’s a lot happening on this 8,000-mile-wide sphere we’re all stuck on together. There’s plenty going on in each 22.5 inch wide sphere that rests upon a human being’s shoulders, too. I’ve heard every broken record that plays in my own personal 22.5’’ sphere. Writing, for me, is an opportunity to smooth over the ticks and pops on those records, and an effort to understand and lend expression to the myriad phenomena going on in everybody else’s little sphere. If I do that work properly, our ride through space on this big blue sphere should be a little more worthwhile, or at least a little more tolerable.

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