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?