CBS Local — Airlines could save billions by taking pilots out of the cockpit — but would their customers feel safe flying without them?
The aviation industry could save upward of $35 billion a year by shifting toward pilotless flights, according to a new report from UBS. But the same report also says that only 17 percent of passengers would be willing to fly without a pilot.
UBS projects that aviation technology advances that are needed to shift toward remote-controlled planes could occur by 2025, according to the report. Around 2030, additional innovation could produce automated business jets and helicopters, and eventually commercial airplanes without pilots.
Pilots manually fly aircraft for only a few minutes on average per flight, and commercial aircraft already land with assistance by on-board computers within the cockpit.
“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,” the report says.
But aircraft do not rely entirely on computer systems to fly safely, even on autopilot. During flights, pilots continuously monitor and adjust navigation systems, prepare for the next phase of flight, and communicate with air traffic control.
However, the transition to pilotless planes will likely occur over a multi-year period, the UBS researchers said. Cargo planes are most likely to incorporate new aviation technology first, with commercial flights going pilotless last.
Shifting toward pilotless planes could save airlines massive amounts of money, as reducing the number of pilots per aircraft could lower spending on training, salaries and similar labor costs, CNN Tech reported.
The move could also soften the impact of an expected pilot shortage. Passenger and cargo airlines worldwide are expected to purchase 41,000 new aircrafts between 2017 and 2036 — creating a need to hire and train 637,000 new pilots to operate them.
The cost reduction associated with pilotless planes would boost airlines’ profit margins, the UBS report said.
But if the cost savings were entirely passed on to passengers, the cost of flight tickets could be reduced by nearly 11 percent in the U.S. This would translate to about $40 per ticket, based on the $369 round-trip average from the first half of 2016, which also included $23 in fees.
But it is likely that many travelers will be unhappy or uncomfortable with airlines removing pilots from the cockpit. About 54 percent of respondents in an 8,000-person study said they were unlikely to board a pilotless flight.
Only 17 percent of the respondents — who were all from the U.S., U.K., Australia, France and Germany — said they would purchase a ticket for a pilotless flight.