10 AUG 2017: Maybe I’ve told it before but just in case you missed it, my favorite pilot story is that the next downsizing in manned flight will see airlines go from the current two-man crewing of a captain and a first officer to a captain and a dog. The captain’s exclusive role will be to feed the dog and the dog’s job will be to bite the pilot if he tries to touch any of the controls.

Joking aside, the chances are actually very real that pilots may soon be able to take their dogs to work with them. Rather than a cramped cockpit at 35,000 feet however their workplace will be a control-room on the ground where they’ll put in 40-hour weeks, simultaneously monitoring a number of pilotless flights. Fantasy you say? Well think again.

Like it or not, as with self-driving cars, pilotless commercial flight has moved from “what if?” to “when?” with the answer being as early as 2025. This prognosis is borne out by a newly released study by Swiss bank UBS - it would seem however that fliers are not quite as ready to embrace the concept as airline management. Oh yes, and there is one other not-so-minor stumbling block, namely pilot unions – more on that one later.

The 44-page Experience Lab study found that despite all the compelling cost reductions, projected flight safety improvements and lower airfares (assuming carriers pass along the savings, which is no gimme) some 54 percent of the 8,000 fliers surveyed said they were ‘very unlikely’ to travel in a pilotless plane.

The Germans were the biggest scaredy-cats, with only 13 percent saying “jawohl” and 58 percent saying “nein.” Americans came out of it as the most willing group with 27 percent saying they’d try it and 50 percent saying “no way.”

Overall, only 17 percent said they would be happy to take an unmanned flight but that percentage rose to 27 percent in the 18–24 age group and peaked at 31 percent with 25 to 34-year-olds. Not surprisingly perhaps, the 65 and above age range showed only eight percent in the ‘likely’ group while 70 percent said “nope”. As a member of this set, I for one would take a pilotless flight over a driverless car ride.

But for the airlines, removing pilots from the flight deck would make for some staggeringly huge savings: UBS predicts that pilotless flight could save the industry in excess of $35 billion a year. In addition to eliminating the salaries of airborne pilots, plus their training, recurrent training and other associated costs, this windfall would come from fuel gains related to optimized flight paths and a multiplicity of other operational efficiencies: Automated flight systems don’t get sick, cause delays after late connecting flights or get stuck in traffic en route to the airport.

Assuming there are no additional costs for flying pilotless and airlines don’t simply pocket the benefits – remember WestJet’s position on dramatically lower fuel prices - UBS believes passengers will see these savings translate to reduced fares. While European passengers might only see a four percent drop, the report states that, “the average percentage of total cost and average benefit that could be passed onto passengers in price reduction for the US airlines is 11 percent” or about $40 a ticket based on 2016 average fares.

Sounds good - but the UBS study has some surprising - and to my mind highly suspect – findings on just how much (or little) cheaper tickets will influence the decision to fly without a pilot. For example, if tickets were 40 to 50 percent cheaper only 14 percent indicated they’d be swayed, while a whopping 50 percent claimed they would not do it at any price. Baloney! Based on the success of ULCC’s like Ryanair and Spirit where the price is the product and with price perennially topping every survey as the biggest influencer in airline choice, I’d tend to take these numbers with a grain of salt.

But back to those pilot unions: Maybe even more than passenger reticence, organized labor will likely be the biggest drag on forward progress for unmanned flight. Boeing recently forecast that the airlines will buy 41,000 new aircraft over the next 20 years. At typically 10 pilots or more per aircraft and combined with an unusually high number of upcoming retirements, this will mean more than half a million new pilots will be needed and the industry is facing an unprecedented pilot shortage. Good news for the negotiating power of the ALPA’s of this world who are unlikely to roll over and agree to signing autopilots as a new class of membership!

Combine this with the major regulatory changes that will be required around the world to facilitate any reduction in cockpit staffing – regulators who count on big labor’s votes – and you have a recipe for … well maybe rather than no pilots that dog is going to make it up there after all!



David Tait

David Tait's insight and irrepressible humour give us an insider's take on the airlines and the industry in general. He doesn't pull his punches, and readers find his columns thoughtful, informative, amusing and infuriating – regardless, David's views on our industry are always original. 

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