BBC – Future – The three things that could kill the pilotless airlinerOctober 4, 2019
Forget standing seats, in-flight VR or luggage-tracking apps. It’s unmanned flight that could be aviation’s next big transformation.
At this year’s Paris Air Show, Airbus said it’s trying to attract aviation regulators to the idea of pilotless commercial travel. So is rival Boeing.
Their timing couldn’t be better. With demand for air travel soaring, over 800,000 new pilots may be needed over the next 20 years. However, the supply of new pilots is struggling to keep up with demand, producing what Boeing has called “one of the biggest challenges” facing the airline industry.
But while pilotless technology offers relief, it poses challenges of its own that could ultimately stand in the way of autonomous airlines taking to the skies. Here are three of them.
Innovation invariably creates winners and losers. The introduction of the automobile shifted consumer demand away from trains much like the railways had, in decades prior, displaced canals and waterways as major forms of transportation. The result was job offers for some workers and pink slips for others. This reality is best summed up by Nicholas Carr, in his book, The Glass Cage, Automation and Us: “There is no economic law that says that everyone, or even most people, automatically benefit from technological progress.”
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Pilotless planes are a prime example of this. While the technology promises to revolutionise travel, its asking price is jobs – specifically, piloting jobs. The airline industry employs tens of thousands of aviators worldwide – skilled professionals who ferry billions of passengers across trillions of kilometers. Delegating this task to machines would produce widespread unemployment among pilots, culminating in a struggle to ply their skills to a new trade. That’s hardly an easy task considering the unique skillset flying demands.
That’s where politics come in. Airline pilots are backed by powerful labour unions, organisations that use collective bargaining, campaign contributions and political lobbying to influence issues affecting their members.
Take the Air Line Pilots Association (Alpa). Representing over 63,000 aviators worldwide, a compelling example of Alpa’s influence dates back to the 1960s. In decades prior, airplanes required a third crew member in the cockpit. This flight engineer monitored airplane instruments and assisted pilots with troubleshooting. However, technological advances made flight engineers obsolete and manufacturers started producing airplanes with only two crew in mind.
However, given the inevitability of job losses among its members, Alpa resisted the adoption of these craft, waging what was by one account “a long struggle, contractually to get management to give (flight engineers) meaningful duties”. Similar tactics are likely should pilotless technology reach maturity. Alpa has already voiced opposition to further reducing crew numbers.
Though crashes are rare, they do…