Pilotless Planes Could Save Airlines Billions

Technology is ready to take over, and that includes airplanes. Although air travel is no stranger to autopilot, most people are uncomfortable with the idea of flying on pilotless planes.

At least that's the conclusion reached by a new survey of 8,000 people in the U.S., Europe and Australia. UBS commissioned the survey in June and found just 17 percent would be willing to fly on a pilotless plane. By comparison, more than half said they would be unlikely to buy a ticket.

Considering every person has their price where something is so cheap they can't pass up the offer, UBS asked consumers how much cheaper a pilotless flight ticket would need to be for them to get on board without a crew in the cockpit.

"Perhaps surprisingly, half the respondents said they would not buy the pilotless ticket even if it was cheaper," said UBS Evidence Lab report.

Acceptance to fly pilotless also varied by country. German and French respondents were the least likely to take a flight with no pilot (13 percent), while US respondents were the most likely (27 percent).

The research says that pilotless planes could save airlines over $30 billion a year in costs between fuel gains related to optimized flight paths, and elimination of pilots and training. UBS believes passengers could then see these savings passed down to them in the form of reduced fares, assuming there is no additional cost for flying pilotless and airlines don’t retain the benefits.

Finally, aircraft would be able to be used more intensively, as they would not require rest days that pilots currently get. UBS analysts Jarrod Castle and Celine Fornaro point out that similar “technology to remotely control military drones already exists and this could be adapted to civil applications”.

They predict that the first aircraft to embrace self-flying technology will be those carrying only cargo, first removing one of the two pilots normally in the cockpit, then eventually replacing them altogether. Private jets are expected to follow, then helicopters, with airliners the last to adopt the new technology.

However, the research warns that while the savings generated by cutting out pilots might be attractive to airlines - the concept isn’t so warmly welcomed by passengers.