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.