Pilotless Planes, The Real Truth about Technology Replacing Pilots
While doing some research on airline stories for an aviation podcast when I ran across a similar headline. I have to say, as a veteran commercial pilot, I am never ceased to be amazed at the load of hooey that our news makers give the general public as factual. So to spite the top ten content providers I decided to sit down and give the public the real deal information and hopefully it will catch on.
First of all a little background is needed. The top results came from these sites 1. Money.cnn 2. The Guardian, 3. Independent.co.uk, 4. CNBC, 5. The Verge, Fox News, 6. BBC, 7. Mashable, 8. LA Times, 9. FT.com. Almost all of them had the same short amount of content regurgitated either from the Automated Press or from Reuters. All the articles are short and all lean heavily on two main thoughts: The word “could” and the survey of 8000 people.
Now I am sure some one is going to get their shorts in a knot when I say this, but what a bunch of hogwash. Is there a possibility of airplanes being operated by only one pilot or even under the pilotless planes concept? Sure, you bet, not a doubt in my mind, but let’s look at how this could happen with some basic facts that no news media is ever going to give you.
Every single one of these articles loved the idea that UBS was predicting that airlines that did not have to employ two pilots could save airlines billions of dollars that they could pass on to their customers in the form of lower ticket prices. But here is where the rubber hits the road, airlines already operate at a razor thin profit margin. Any type of a cost cutting benefit that they can explore and put into practice will not be passed onto the customer.
Oh sure, they will hem and haw about lower prices, and in fact they may indeed lower a price here and there to sleep better at night, but saving big dollars for the consumer, is not going to happen. The reason why is money, and money is the only thing that matters to any airline management group or individual investor groups. The move to pilotless planes will be a new era and when a new era starts, new rules of engagement come with it. There will be some genuine reason that becomes known that will not allow savings to be passed onto the consumer and it will seem logical, but the real reason is money. Money makes the world go around. So here are some points to consider about airlines using pilotless planes.
- If a move from two pilots to one in a commercial airliner occur, or even to no pilots, The FAA will have to make sweeping changes to the current regulations. This will take a massive amount of time and the amount of changes will be mind boggling since many regulations and common practices will have to be changed. The giant roadblock that no one talks about is the pace of the federal government, which is about as slow as it comes. The wheels of the FAA certainly spin slowly and this kind of change will take decades before its fully implemented. Consider the fact that our current Air Traffic Control system is so antiquated that it actually hinders the whole travel system. It could be argued that the current technology is over 40 years old and most pilots will tell you, adds considerably to the amount of air traffic delays. Anyone that says otherwise is telling you a tale. And this problem is just technology, combine that with the technology of pilotless airplanes as well as new regulations to govern it and training people to use it, and you have a juggernaut of an issue.
- Insurance companies. Everyone knows insurance companies rule corporations. Moving from old school rules involving two pilots and the experience level of those pilots in regards to insuring the flight will lead to sweeping changes to the amount of insurance airlines will have to pay to operate. I would bet my 401K on the fact that the insurance companies will take the same opportunity to change the “competitive landscape” and rates will go up for airlines. This is in turn will be passed down to the consumer or used to combat the mindset of not reducing fares. Again this will take time and lots of arguing on many levels.
- Pilot Shortage. It is a fact, there is a pilot shortage. Some people in the media that don’t even come to airport always have their opinions on how to best combat it, or even acknowledge it. There was a big era of time where the industry lagged in hiring pilots, most of the reasons were that the economy was horrible and airlines had to cuts costs. Blame it on the war, blame it on inflation, blame it on whatever, the bottom line is, when there is an economic issue, airlines have to cut costs. Fuel is the biggest cost for airlines then its flight crews, in that order. If you cannot save money when the price of fuel is sky high, then employees lose their jobs. So now there are lots of pilots getting ready to retire, they have too, it’s the law, by age 65 you are done flying for an airline. Airlines are scrambling to find replacements that are qualified. There are not that many, most prospective pilots went into other fields because a career in aviation was so dismal and gloomy. Now the crunch is on, and airlines have to have a plan. But reducing to one pilot is going to take forever because of the delay of the FAA. This is a real issue and will not be solved overnight, in the meantime the industry still has to function. And “IF” the government, aircraft manufacturers and airline companies all come together to change the industry with less pilots they have one more road block to hurdle. That road block is the unions. There is no way the Airline Pilots Association is going to let jobs dwindle away to 50% because of the changing landscape without a fight. And that fight, will take time and cost companies money. Granted they will probably lose that fight, but not until they conquer the next issue.
- Airline passengers are not going to swallow this one pilot or no pilot plane idea without a lot of grooming. Most of the articles written seem to all mention this poll of 8000 people surveyed about whether or not they would get on a plane with less or no pilots. No one mentions who the people they surveyed really are. Are they actual passengers? Did they do these surveys at the airport? Was it a good mix of ages? Why only 8000 people? Why not the entire passenger count from any one airline for an entire year? How come no one bothered to ask the very professionals (pilots) who are at the airport day in and day out? I don’t know about you, but when I hear the word poll, it makes me cringe. Who does the polls? Is it some kid straight out of college who is wet behind the ears and just wants to get the job done? This is what I think and I am sure you do too. I talk to passengers all day long because I just so happen to be a people person. I hear a lot, ask a flight attendant and I am sure they could give you even more data. From my experience, people are in a couple of different categories. They are either ignorant of how the how pilot operation of the aircraft works, or they do not care. What they do care about is this; if there is a problem, who is going to fix it while in the air? If your answer is not good enough, they won’t go. Older generation (NOT millennials) won’t want to go on pilotless planes, and they will tell you that to your face.
- Cyber Attack. We have a real problem with this topic no matter what government agency you ask. Does the possibility exist that aircraft technology can be hacked to cause harm in today’s system? Sure, but the level of technology is such that any pilot can just turn it off and manually fly the plane ( I call it saving the day) In the future, that technology is going to be more complex and more susceptible to foul play. If you don’t think so, watch your local news tonight. The problem lies in the character of some people and their reasonings. Some have religious beliefs and want to rid the earth of most who don’t share their same beliefs. Others just want to steal data and cause havoc for financial gain. The problem is that we as a nation or series of nations have not “had enough” of it. Until we figure out how to combat this problem, progress will be slow, and guess what, it’s going to cost money. If there is any possible way that someone can profit from an airplane cyber attack or benefit on the mass destruction of hacking a flight system, you can be sure that someone will spend the money to make that happen. Until a viable and permanent solution can be found, cyber attack will be an issue.
So there you have it, my top five reasons plus a little bit of attitude on top. I never even used the word “could” The only subject I did not cover is the human ability component of flying. While this could extensively increase the length of the ariticle, I decided to leave that subject to another discussion. Long story short, we need humans to make decisions that a computer or software cannot. If you have found this article useful or have an opinion, please leave a comment.
This video is a good start, but does not cover any of the topics that I have brought forth.
This video is better view of how airplanes are designed with pilot experience in mind. Its a good start to understanding Pilotless Planes.
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