Why Airlines Probably Won't Go Pilot-Less Anytime Soon

It might be safe, but it would also be terrifying

Key Takeaways

  • Startup Merlin Labs is working on autonomous cargo and passenger planes.
  • It’s hard to see the point of a fully crewed, self-flying airliner.
  • No, airliners don’t "basically fly themselves."
A view looking up at the underside of an airplane as it passes over.

Viktor Forgacs / Unsplash

Pilotless planes make way more sense than driverless cars, but would you ever even get inside one?

Self-flying plane startup Merlin Labs wants to put pilotless cargo and passenger planes in the sky. The planes would fly themselves, including takeoff and landing, and there would be a remote operator somewhere on the ground, monitoring many planes, like a more hands-on air-traffic controller. But do we really need to remove the pilot from a plane? Would autonomous flights be safe? And would any passengers ever get on board?

"As long as everything runs nicely and smoothly, no pilot is needed," veteran airline pilot Martin Pletzer told Lifewire via email. "But as soon as the computers mess up and things start to turn sour, you have to have somebody who keeps the blue side up and just flies the thing."

What’s the Point?

Autonomous and remote-piloted drones make sense in the military, where your aircraft risks being shot down. But for commercial and cargo flights, the main reason for ditching the pilot is cost. According to Payscale, the average commercial pilot salary is almost $83,000, with a base salary of up to $168,000. And then there’s the copilot.

Another consideration is safety, but commercial airlines are already one of the safest ways to travel. Or are they? Speaking to The Verge, Merlin Labs CEO Matt George claims that planes are so automated, and pilots get so little practice or real control, that the human pilots are unable to properly take over when things go wrong. Better, he says, to make everything fully automatic.

"Contrary to what people are led to believe, flying remains a very hands-on operation, with tremendous amounts of input from the crew."

"As long as we need humans in the cockpit, train them thoroughly and keep them proficient," says Pletzer. "If you keep them in cockpits, but remove them out of the control loop, they will fail in the long run (as accidents show)."

Self-Flying Planes

Autonomous airliners operate in a very different environment from self-driving cars. There are no pedestrians to avoid, no traffic as such, and—thanks to radar and transponders—the position of all the airplanes in the sky is known. Flight paths and speeds can be calculated to make sure planes never come near each other. 

In fact, airliners pretty much fly themselves already. Or do they? To find out, we asked some pilots.

"This isn’t remotely true, despite popular assumptions to the contrary," airline pilot and author Patrick Smith told Lifewire via email. Smith even wrote an essay on the realities of flight automation. "Contrary to what people are led to believe, flying remains a very hands-on operation, with tremendous amounts of input from the crew," he writes. 

But that’s now. We already know that military drones can take off, fly, and land, all by remote control. It’s not a stretch to apply that to a plane full of passengers or cargo. And while a plane might have a more disastrous failure mode than a car, it also has a buffer. A plane can’t swerve into oncoming traffic or hit a lamppost if it gets momentarily confused.

A pilot in a cockpit flying a plane over the grand canyon.

Westwind Air Service / Unsplash

Airliners also need a crew for everything else—managing passengers and serving the food that makes the airline extra money. Could these crew members also be trained to take over the plane in an emergency? Maybe.

Would You Fly Pilotless?

The biggest barrier to autonomous flights might be psychological. Which of us would feel safe on board a plane without anyone on board flying it?

"Will passengers ever board an airplane, if the responsible operator is not on board?" asks Pletzer. "If he is sitting in a climatized operator's room in New Jersey, navigating his plane with 280 passengers on board through a stormy night over the Indian Ocean?"

Even though we all know how safe it is to travel by air, we still feel happier in a car. But to illustrate the realities of autonomous vs. human-piloted planes, let’s hear a story from Pletzer, which sums up the reasons most passengers will want a trained human in control.

"As soon as the computers mess up and things start to turn sour, you have to have somebody who keeps the blue side up and just flies the thing."

It takes place two months ago during a night flight over Central Europe.

"It was a calm and routine night flight, autopilot was smoothly controlling as expected," says Pletzer. "Copilot went to the restroom. He had just closed the cockpit door as multiple alarms came on in the cockpit."

"Autopilot and auto-throttle failed, mandating manual control of the aircraft, multiple systems indicated failures, making various indications unreliable. So back to piloting basics: manually maintain aircraft attitude, maintain thrust, check which instruments are reliable, call copilot back from the restroom, and start working on the problem."

"We solved it after a few minutes. It was a computer that failed for a short time, and basically restarted itself."

Case closed.

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