Autopilot is hardly a rarity in the world of commercial air travel. But when it comes to a fully automated flight, most people say "hard pass," at least for now.
The pilotless plane could save airlines as much as $35 billion per year, according to a new survey from UBS, reducing the cost of highly skilled employees ($31 billion), related training ($3 billion), and fuel ($1 billion).
The deployment of autonomous technology could result in significant fare cuts, an estimated one-tenth of the total in the U.S.
And yet 54% of passengers refuse to board a remote-controlled plane, according to the survey of 8,000 air passengers.
That sentiment will change over time, the investment bank notes. By the middle of the century, the majority may be willing. But UBS said passengers won't do it today, even if ticket prices were lower—a big hurdle to airlines, which the bank estimates could see profits double by using the technology.
Much like the automotive industry, most passengers don't realize that there are quite a few autonomous systems already in place on today's aircraft—including those that land the plane.
"Many modern airplanes can autoland," notes retired airline captain John Cox in a USA Today column from 2014. "These new generation jets can fly the approach, flare, touch down, track the centerline of the runway, apply brakes and deploy the ground spoilers. They cannot apply thrust reverse and cannot turn off the runway."
Indeed, every major plane manufacturer is testing fully automated jetliners today. Boeing revealed in June that it was testing such aircraft in simulators and underscored that artificial intelligence could replace a portion of the tasks currently conducted by pilots. The next month, Airbus announced that it successfully completed trials of its Sagitta "unmanned aerial vehicle," a type of aircraft known better by a different name: drone.