You just boarded a flight on American Airlines in 2025. You nod at a screen that shows a smiling digital avatar who greets you and says your name as you walk past. At your seat, another avatar on a screen walks you through what would happen in an emergency landing. As you pull out a pillow that looks like it was made for a ten-year-old boy and fidget with your seat belt fastener, you suddenly realize: There are no humans in control of the airplane.
How did this happen?
For starters — it already has. In case you haven’t been paying attention on the past 20 trips you took to San Francisco or New York City, planes are already highly automated. The pilots are there to log a few details about the flight and land the plane, but auto-pilot already does most of the flying once you’re airborne; every calculation about the flight is automated. In a dire situation, you might think the pilots would suddenly take over, but many airplanes also use automations to determine how to adjust airspeed and address other factors like weather and wind. (Of course, this varies by airline and even between commercial aircraft models.)
So a computer is already in control.
The question is, what if that pilotless scenario became a reality sooner than you think?
A new report by UBS suggests that planes will become pilotless by 2025. Autonomous planes could save airlines about $35 billion per year. Most of the savings would come from reduced insurance costs and not paying pilots. On the flipside, only 17 percent of those surveyed said they’d take an unmanned flight. Younger passengers are more likely to let a plane fly itself: 30 percent of millennials are ready to jump on a flight to Orlando that is not operated by human pilots.
It’s a curiosity of the machine learning age that we’re already relying so much on automations, but we prefer to think that humans are still the ones in control. In reality, even today the pilots are mostly there to communicate with the ground crew and to watch for anomalies. If we knew a pilot only touched the controls on take-off and landing, we might feel a little squeamish. Part of the issue with autonomous cars and planes is that we want to at least feel like we’re in control, even if we know computers are doing most of the work. It’s the illusion of control.
Another curiosity is that we all tend to think we’re experts on flying. I’ve flown to California on business around 40-50 times. It’s routine. I know a 747 is a massive airbus that weighs around 385,000 pounds when it is empty and dry as a bone with no one on board. Fully loaded, it’s at least twice that heavy. I know it consumes several thousand gallons of fuel on one flight. And I know mishaps can occur. (A recent crash in the Bay Area was ruled a pilot error.) What appears to be routine is actually highly regimented and automated already. (Also, I have no idea how this behemoth actually gets airborne.) Without computers doing the calculations on every flight, we’d be dependent on a sleepy pilot more often that we’d like to admit.
My view — it’s going to be a long road. We trust these automations to an extent, and we know they are invaluable, but when we board a plane, we like to shake the hand of a human. For now.