Airlines could see billions in savings from pilotless planes

Posted on 14 Aug 2017 by Michael Cruickshank

A note released this month by Swiss bank UBS has stated that airlines stand to save billions of dollars if they make the switch to deploying pilotless aircraft.

Airbus's SAGITTA unmanned aircraft test vehicle takes flight. Image courtesy of Airbus.
Airbus’s SAGITTA unmanned aircraft test vehicle takes flight. Image courtesy of Airbus.

All up the note estimates that the aviation industry could save up to $35bn per year in expenses through the use of these high-tech aircraft.

“Reducing the intervention of human pilots on aircraft could bring material economic benefits and improve safety,” the UBS note read.

Breaking these savings down, $31bn could be saved in wages for pilots alone, while another $3bn could be saved through a reduced need for training.

As well, autonomously flown aircraft would be more fuel efficient than those flown by humans, accounting for a further $1bn in savings, and a reduction in carbon emissions.

For the consumer, the UBS note says that pilotless aircraft would result in a lowering of airline ticket prices by as much as 11% in the US and 8% in Europe.

Aerospace companies push ahead with pilotless tech

While large autonomous aircraft have already been regularly flying in military operations for over a decade, the technology has been slow to reach the civilian aerospace industry.

This, however, is changing, with a number of aerospace manufacturers, including critically Boeing and Airbus announcing their development of such vehicles.

As well, most commercial aircraft already feature advanced autopilot systems, meaning that self-flying technology could smoothly be rolled-out as an evolution of these existing systems.

Consumer fears to be overcome

Despite the tech being all but ready for application, one major obstacle that will need to be overcome is public opinion.

UBS also looked into consumer attitudes towards autonomous aircraft and found that a majority of respondents said they would be ‘unlikely’ to take a pilotless flight. As well, half said that they would be reluctant to take such flights, even if they were cheaper.

On a more positive note, younger and more educated respondents were more likely to be in favor of using the technology, suggesting that with consumer education and increasing faith in technology, these attitudes can be changed.