Pilotless Planes Could Save Airlines $35B — If Anyone Is Willing To Fly In Them

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While we’ve been getting used to the idea of driverless cars over the last few years, would you be willing to slip into an autonomous vehicle that’s, uh, quite a bit larger? Like the size of a jetliner, perhaps?

Look, Ma! No hands!

Commercial planes already have the ability to take off, cruise, and land using onboard flight computers, but removing pilots from the cockpit entirely could bring “material economic benefits” — a savings of $35 billion per year — to airlines and improve safety, a recent report by UBS (via The Guardian) notes. These planes could, for example, be controlled by a pilot remotely on the ground.

UBS estimates that pilots cost $31 billion per year, plus $3 billion in training. Autonomous planes would also be more efficient, UBS notes, bringing in another $1 billion in fuel savings.

It could be just the thing the airline industry needs: A recent report from a pilot training company said 255,000 new airline pilots must be added over the next 10 years in order for airlines to sustain the growth and support retirements of current pilots.

Pilotless planes could even reduce fares, making them an attractive option for many travelers.

“The average percentage of total cost and average benefit that could be passed onto passengers in price reduction for the U.S. airlines is 11%,” the report said, noting that savings in Europe would be less.

Thanks, but no thanks

However, in order for anyone to save any amount of money, airlines will first have to convince people to actually fly in these pilotless aircraft: A UBS survey of 8,000 people found that 54% of them wouldn’t be willing to flying in a pilotless plane, while just 17% said they’d be totally into the idea.

“Perhaps surprisingly, half of the respondents said that they would not buy the pilotless flight ticket even if it was cheaper,” the report said.

As technology improves, however, younger people may be more likely to take a trip in a fully autonomous plane, UBS notes.

In the works

To that end, Boeing is already working on the concept of pilotless planes, with a goal of testing such technology next year.

“The basic building blocks of the technology clearly are available,” Mike Sinnett, Boeing’s vice president of product development, told Reuters in June.

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