Aircraft manufacturer Airbus says “the technology for autonomous flying” is already here, and the only obstacles to progress are regulators – and “the traveling public,” understandably wary of pilotless planes.
Ever since two Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft went down within six months of each other due to a glitch in the plane’s computerized flight control system, killing everyone onboard, airline passengers have had good reason to be leery of placing their lives in the hands of computers. News that Boeing was aware of the problems with its MCAS system and packaged the software “fix” as an add-on to extract more money from its customers only adds to fliers’ distrust of the company. But what about Airbus, its main competitor?
Airbus chief salesman Christian Scherer acknowledged in an interview with AP that the Boeing horror “highlighted and underlined the need for absolute, uncompromising safety in this industry,” but says his company’s sales strategy has not changed. Airbus is focused on convincing regulators and passengers to embrace the pilotless planes the company can already build. “Technology-wise, we don’t see a hurdle,” he said – it’s merely a matter of “perception in the traveling public” and getting the regulators’ go-ahead.
The last pilot to survive flying the doomed Lion Air Boeing 737 MAX that went down in October was able to manually override the aircraft’s faulty flight control system when it tipped the plane’s nose down. But what if there were no pilot on board? While Airbus sees single-pilot operation as an intermediate step, its end goal is to remove humans from the equation entirely – meaning passengers have no choice but to trust the computer.
Aircraft manufacturers – and airlines – like pilotless planes for the same reason that Boeing liked packaging the safety measures that could have saved passengers’ lives as add-ons – they’ll save a lot of money. Research conducted by Swiss bank UBS found removing the pilot from the equation could save airlines over $30 billion per year by optimizing flight paths and eliminating the need to train and pay human pilots – savings which would theoretically be passed on to passengers.
But half of respondents to a 2017 survey UBS conducted would not fly in a pilotless plane, even if the ticket was cheaper – and this was before the Boeing crashes destroyed our faith in on-board computers. A mere 17 percent of survey respondents said they’d take a flight with no human crew, though younger people were more likely to be open to the idea.
Two-pilot cockpits have been the norm in commercial aviation for decades, and many airlines made the setup mandatory after a 2015 crash in which a Germanwings pilot flew an Airbus A320 into a mountain. The industry is reportedly facing a shortage of trained pilots, however – Boeing in 2017 estimated that 637,000 pilots would be needed over the next 20 years, while just 200,000 have been trained since the dawn of the airplane age.
Much of the flying in modern commercial aviation is already done by computerized systems and various forms of autopilot. But removing “human error” from the equation forces passengers to place a lot of trust in systems that aren’t very trustworthy. The US Government Accountability Office warned in 2015 that modern commercial aircraft can be hijacked midair by someone on the ground, and the FBI admitted later that year that it was possible to seize control of a plane by hacking into its in-flight entertainment system. In the end, it may come down to who passengers trust less – computers, or the humans who build them.