Would you travel in a pilotless plane, if the fare was cheap?

According to report, full-size cargo planes will be in use without pilots within eight years


Pilotless planes will save airlines $35 billion (€29.7 billion) a year and could lead to substantial fare cuts – if passengers can stomach the idea of remote-controlled flying, according to new research.

Full-size cargo planes will be airborne without pilots by 2025, according to the report by investment bank UBS, but it predicts it will take until the middle of the century before passengers have enough confidence to board pilotless planes.

The savings for the airlines could be huge, said UBS. It estimated that pilots cost the industry $31 billion a year, plus another $3 billion in training, and that fully automated planes will fly more efficiently, saving another $1bn a year in fuel.

A pilotless Predator aircraft sits by a hanger at Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan. Photograph: David Bathgate/Corbis via Getty Images
A pilotless Predator aircraft sits by a hanger at Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan. Photograph: David Bathgate/Corbis via Getty Images

Passengers could benefit with ticket price cuts of about a tenth, said the report. “The average percentage of total cost and average benefit that could be passed onto passengers in price reduction for the US airlines is 11%,” it said, although the savings in Europe would be less, at 4 per cent on average but rising to 8 per cent at Ryanair.

Aircraft costs and fuel make up a much larger proportion of costs at airlines than pilot salaries although UBS said profits at some major airlines could double if they switch to pilotless.

But more than half of 8,000 people surveyed by UBS said they would refuse to travel in a pilotless plane – even if fares are slashed.

“Some 54% of respondents said they were unlikely to take a pilotless flight, while only 17% said they would likely undertake a pilotless flight. Perhaps surprisingly, half of the respondents said that they would not buy the pilotless flight ticket even if it was cheaper,” said the report.

But it added that younger and more educated respondents were more willing to fly on a pilotless plane. “This bodes well for the technology as the population ages,” it said.

Industry experts predict intense passenger resistance to pilotless planes. Chris Tarry, an aviation economist and former pilot, said: “This is such a long way into the future. It’s going to be a very brave airline that takes its pilots off planes. What is a cutomer’s number one concern? That they get you there safely.

“There has been a lot of automation, and large numbers of landings at Heathrow are now on auto-land. But operating a drone is a very different thing to putting passengers on board and getting them off safely,” he said.

Drone technology has advanced rapidly in recent years, with all the major plane manufacturers testing fully-automated jetliners.

Two weeks ago Airbus revealed that trials on its jet-engined Sagitta “unmanned aerial vehicle” had completed successfully. In a seven-minute demonstration flight in South Africa, the “unmanned jet-propelled demonstrator … flew completely autonomously … on a pre-programmed course,” the company said in a statement.

In June Boeing told reporters at the Paris airshow in June that it is testing pilotless aircraft in simulators and that artificial intelligence systems could replace many of the decisions currently taken by pilots.

Already, commercial jets can take off, cruise and land using computer technology, enabling planes to land at some airports even in foggy conditions. In recent years, the number of pilots on a standard passenger plane has dropped from three to two.

Military technology is further advanced. In July 2013 the US navy managed to take off and land a full-sized fighter jet on an aircraft carrier.

UBS said one path towards pilotless will see airlines move to just one pilot per plane.

“In commercial flights, if the move from two to zero pilots may be too abrupt over the next 10 to 20 years, we could see first a move to having just one pilot in the cockpit and one remotely located on the ground particularly on flights below six to seven hours (to be under pilots’ fatigue). Indeed, today’s drones are controlled by remotely based operators.”

In 2010, Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary said he would seek permission from authorities to fly with one person in the cockpit, saying the second pilot was only there to “make sure the first fella doesn’t fall asleep and knock over one of the computer controls”.

UBS said that cargo will be the first to go pilotless. “Unlike passengers, cargo is not concerned with the status of its pilots (human or autonomous). For this reason, pilotless cargo aircraft may happen more swiftly than for passengers. In addition, we believe that the 24-hour nature of much of cargo flights (often taking off or landing in the late and early hours) may be well suited to artificial pilots – with the problems of sleeping hours less of an issue.

A pilotless airplane “Queen Bee” with the the wireless controlling-apparatus in the foreground. Photograph: The Illustrated London News
A pilotless airplane “Queen Bee” with the the wireless controlling-apparatus in the foreground. Photograph: The Illustrated London News

There are estimated to be about 20,000 commercial jet pilots in the UK – but in the medium term the threat is not from pilotless, but from huge additional demand from airlines.

The rise of budget airlines and the huge increase in the number of commercial flights in Asia has sent demand for pilots soaring. “The real challenge for the industry right now is to train more pilots, not get rid of them,” said Tarry.


– Q&A –

1 – Is the pilotless passenger plane a feasible concept?

The use of commercial and military drones shows that the technology for pilotless plane travel exists and in regular use. The most common type of passenger aircraft in the world, which is planes made by Boeing and Airbus, rely heavily on computers that do much of the pilots’ work. This form of flight is known as “fly by wire” technology. Meanwhile, auto-landing as well as conventional auto-pilot have been in place for decades. Control towers at airports are likely to become a thing of the past, with plans at London City airport to relay HD imagery to a site in Hampshire.

2 – Is fly by wire technology safe?

Flying by airplane has never been safer thanks to considerable improvements in technology and design (and airport security). According to the International Air Transport Association, the airline industry trade body, there were 1.25 accidents per million jet flights last year – lower than the five-year average of 1.46 (which was already at a very low level). But the interaction between an automated system and a pilot can cause fatalities when it goes wrong and was a key factor in the AF447 crash, which claimed 228 lives in 2009.

3 – What are current regulations on pilotless passenger planes?

There are no regulations in place for pilotless passenger planes because they don’t exist now. There are rules in place for drones.

4 – What are the potential problems for pilotless planes?

An unmanned cockpit – if pilotless planes have them – poses obvious security concerns, particularly if passenger planes retain the capacity for override by a human in case of computer glitches. This could be mitigated by having teams of pilots on the ground – similar to military drone pilots – who can take over at the first sign of trouble. There is also the situation of who is in charge of the plane when it is in the air and will have the authority to deal with unruly passengers and, for instance, decide to land the plane in an emergency situation. Would this power be conferred to senior cabin crew and if so, how would they command the plane to execute and emergency landing and how would they communicate with air traffic control?

5 – What do the pilots think?

They are concerned about both flight safety as well as security. Steve Landells, safety specialist for the British Airline Pilots Association, said: “We have concerns that in the excitement of this futuristic idea, some may be forgetting the reality of pilotless air travel. Automation in the cockpit is not a new thing – it already supports operations. However, every single day pilots have to intervene when the automatics don’t do what they’re supposed to. “While moving pilots to a control tower on the ground might eventually save airlines money, there would need to be huge investment to make this possible, and even more to make it safe.”

Landells added that the growing phenomenon of global computer hacking attacks raises legitimate concerns about the vulnerability of pilotless aircraft to such a criminal ploy. So far, cars have proven to be susceptible targets. In 2015, hackers demonstrated that they could take control of a Jeep over the internet and crash it. “Automated aircraft would be at risk of cyber-attacks,” said Landells. “The system would need to be airtight to ensure those with malicious intent couldn’t take control.”

– Guardian Service