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Pilotless planes could save airlines billions, but passengers don’t want to fly in them yet

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Passengers might see reduced fares as well

Airbus Sagitta Image: Unmanned Systems Technology

Pilotless flight might be in our future, but according to a new study by Swiss bank UBS, consumers are not quite ready to embrace it.

Out of the 8,000 people surveyed for the report, more than half said they were unwilling to travel in a pilotless plane, even if the price was cheaper. Overall, only 17 percent said they would be likely to take an uncrewed flight, but that percentage rose to 27 percent when reducing the sample size to those aged 18–24, and 31 percent with those aged 25–34.

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. While European passengers might only see a 4 percent reduction, the report says 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.”

UBS predicts these technology changes will eventually make flying safer and minimize human cockpit errors. Autonomous flight is already being tested and conceptualized: Lilium Aviation recently tested its all-electric, two-seater, vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) prototype; Tel Aviv-based Urban Aeronautics has plans to build a four-person, hydrogen-powered “flying car” by 2022; and Airbus Defence and Space recently completed a successful test of Sagitta, an uncrewed aerial vehicle, which flew autonomously for seven minutes on a pre-programmed course in Overberg, South Africa.

The report predicts that air taxis and cargo flights will be the first to utilize pilotless flight, followed by business jets and helicopters, and finally, commercial passenger flights “with reduced cockpit workload.” Given that the youngest respondents were most receptive to the idea of flying on a pilotless plane, UBS thinks “this may bode well for the future development of such technology, as the 18–34 age group grows older and maintains such an attitude towards flying on pilotless planes.”