Would You Fly on an Airplane With No Pilot?

A few weeks ago, my seatmate on an airplane was a fantastically interesting guy who’s been flying airplanes since he was a kid. He has flown Air Force cargo planes, fire-fighting planes, and is currently employed as a long-haul pilot for a West Coast cargo company. (FWIW, my oldest brother is also a former Air Force pilot; here’s what he’s flying these days.)

My seatmate told me that within 5 or 10 years, it may well be common to fly on a commercial airliner with no pilot in the cockpit. Instead, the plane would be controlled from the ground by someone who’s half air-traffic controller and half kid-with-a-remote-control-airplane. The technology, he told me, is pretty much already in place: about 80% of commercial airliner takeoffs and landings are already remote-controlled (and it is the human landings that are the bumpy ones, he said, performed mostly so that pilots can keep up their landing chops). I assume that one “pilot” on the ground could easily fly more than one plane at a time.

Unmanned aircraft have been around for awhile. Think of the Predator drone, which the U.S. military uses reliably for attack and reconnaissance purposes. And the U.K. Ministry of Defense recently conducted a two-hour test flight of an airliner in which the pilot was on board (for legal purposes only) but controlled the plane via a computer in the back of the plane.

But here’s my question. Even if the U.S. airline companies could fire most of their pilots (a big “if,” I am guessing, because of pilots’ unions), would you be willing to be a passenger on an unmanned airplane? September 11 notwithstanding, my feeling is that so many passengers are so skittish about flying that one of their greatest comforts is the thought that, Well, the pilots don’t want to die either. Once that comfort is removed, would people still be willing to get on the plane?


Guille

Funny. I am currently being trained to become an air traffic controller and they keep telling us how in the future more and more parts of our job will be handled by on-board systems and our workload will be much lighter (i.e. our jobs less needed!)

It will be interesting to see how air navigation evolves: less dependent on ground systems?, totally controlled from the ground?, totally autonomous and unmanned on both sides? (I wouldn't be too comfortable with this last option, but I guess that's just the conservative me)

711buddha

The mystique of flying is past. Its nothing but a sky bus now. Airlines have stripped glamour out of it already. Why not remote planes?

No drunk pilots, reduced pilot error...

But is this really meaningful? How many passengers a year does a pilot fly? Spread the cost of the pilot over all those tickets and I don't see how this can impact prices or the bottom line very significantly.

Guille

Check out this fatal aviation accidents statistics:

http://www.planecrashinfo.com/cause.htm

What if you could get rid of human error?

Anonymous Coward

Obligatory Terminator reference:

Sarah Connor: [narrating] Dyson listened while the Terminator laid it all down: Skynet, Judgment Day, the history of things to come. It's not everyday you hear that you're responsible for 3 billion deaths. He took it pretty well.

Miles Dyson: I feel like I'm gonna throw up.

Cam Beck

"would you be willing to be a passenger on an unmanned airplane"

I would likely not be an early adopter of this technology. Computers have not yet developed to the point that I'd trust that they could adapt to the infinite scenarios that could arise and need human attention. I still have to reboot my computer several times per week, and I know a lot of people are the same way.

If something were to go wrong with the equipment, with a human at the helm, there would still be hope (no matter how slim). With a computer, the airline may as well just write off the passengers, throw up its hands and say, "Whoops. Oh well, we couldn't help it." That kind of disdain for its passengers, not pilot salaries, that lead to poor financial performance.

TheQuitter

You know, I would say there's always a segment of the population that is more influenced by price when it comes to a purchase. Maybe a discount airline will try this first. High tech planes, no union members. Auto pilot and soda vending machines with a to-your-seat delivery system. If you make it cheap enough, people will flock to it. Plus, the minute the first un-manned commercial flight lands safely, it'll be covered by cnn, msnbc, abc, etc. Trust will be built up and it'll be the way of the future.

spayced

I had no idea pilots were still manually flying large planes.

socialismisevil

there is no way that idea flys :)

smperk

Quitter,

You think that if someone is going to fly, and this new technology came out where flights were operated via ground control, they'd be more apt to try it if the cost is cheaper?

I'd think they'd see it as "well, it's cheaper because of the risk of me losing my life!"

I think it would have to be MORE expensive for people to feel more reassured.

seamusmccauley

"Once that comfort is removed, would people still be willing to get on the plane?"

Currently if the pilot of a plane crashes it, he dies along with his passengers. So he wouldn't be any worse off if he was allowed to fly the plane from the ground by remote control, but crashing it was a capital offence. That'd improve efficiency, maintain the pilot's incentive to keep the thing in the air and no-one would be any worse off. Also, it would mean that someone competent and highly incentivised to judge the reliability of the technology would be doing so - pilots wouldn't use the remote control until it was proven at least as safe as flying the plane from the cockpit, nor would they be willing to fly more planes than they were confident was safe. It's a win-win all round.

58saavedra

I wouldn't fly an unmanned plane. But, I also wouldn't purchase goods online a few years ago, so I might change my mind later.

victorbravo

>>What if you could get rid of human error?

ocmpoma

I can see the whole "what if the computers go out" issue. I think that remote piloting of airliners should wait until the systems are at least as reliable as those that are actually on the plane. Some sort of backup would be nice, but I doubt we'd be able to have Steven Segal on standby to fly out on a modified stealth bomber and board the plane in case of an emergency.

As for the pilots who are on board having a vested interest in not crashing - perhaps it would be better to have a less interested (and thus less nervous, less likely to freeze up, less likely to stop piloting and start praying) person at the controls?

lfstevens

The commercial flying industry is essentially perfectly safe. The odds of an accident are very, very small. Remote piloting and autonomous flying will come when they reach that level of safety. One element of perceived safety is security against attackers. Getting rid of the pilot/cockpit essentially eliminates any form of attack except an explosion.

A comparable situation is cruise control. Some people refuse to use it; others depend on it. It's about to become "adaptive"; accelerating and decelerating in response to road conditions, which should further increases its use.

Flying is a little different. Beyond security, the other direct passenger benefit is lower cost. Passengers have shown they are willing to compromise on just about anything to save a few bucks...Note that you're not just taking out the pilot, you're taking out the very expensive, insecure, and high maintenance cockpit.

Of course, you'd have to increase security at the air traffic control center, adding fail over to alternate sites, and other measures.

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TheQuitter

smperk,

By that logic, people would go online, find out which airline crashes the least, and gladly pay whatever price that company charges.

I also contend that most people don't think about crashes or the likelihood of a crash when they get on a plane. It probably goes more like this,

"Man, traveling the day before thanksgiving sucks. all these people are at the airport. Ugh."

Yea some people are fearful of flying, but for the most of us, it's a safe mode of travel. We also have faith in corporations wanting to make money. No company is dumb enough to put out a technology that has a high rate of failure. Commercial applications/products generally have been tested relentlessly.

In the face of highly improbably (though super costly) disincentives, I would contend that people are more likely to gloss over these once in a million risks if they could fly inter-continental flights for x-amount cheaper.

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BRKelley

By all means, let's fly the unmanned skies!

The US is one of the few industrialized nations that have government-run traffic control system, and labor unions and GOP chair Ed Gillespie fought against privatization. Since 2002 we know have government-run airport security. Are we any safer?

If anyone seriously suggests that Organized Labor, the Democrat Party, and weak-kneed Republicans would ever allow consumers to choose if they wish to fly a manned commercial airline or an unmanned commercial airline, I have a bridge in Chappaquiddick to sell.

Glintir

I want a pilot on board even once it all goes to remote flying. Here's a movie quote to explain why...

John Bender:Screws just fall out all the time, the world's an imperfect place.

Fact is, the technology WILL fail. Always does. And when that happens I want an imperfect, but very much capable human landing the plane. And fanfare and cost aside, first time that discount airline has a crash on an unmanned plane, then the pilots will be back on board.

kevindoyle

Well I would have a problem with flying on a plane with no pilot but wouldn't this be much more practical in cargo flights by say UPS and FedEx? I would think with the minimal lives (if any)and the elimination of a pilots pay would make that form of pilotless planes much more viable.

bertrecords

Per the data above linked in the third comment (by Guille), removing the pilot from the airplane operation process removes the most frequent cause of failure-- pilot error. If the bumpy landings are indeed the human ones, then that is further evidence that pilot-less flight is more fail-safe than human-operated flight. This is basic quality engineering. Of course, the fact that grandmothers remove their shoes on flights between Salt Lake City and Dayton indicates that airline security is 90% psychology, 10% fact-based. Airlines, airports, and the government will do most any thing to make travellers feel safe. Though, last I heard, airlines were ten times safer than cars on a per mile basis.

ejp1082

Most accidents are human error; I think the more systems that get automated, the better. As it is, the bigger planes basically fly themselves - there's not all that much for a pilot to *do* up there anymore.

That said, human beings still excel at some tasks that make a computer choke, and I'd always want one there as a backup system.