Swiss bank UBS has claimed single-pilot commercial and cargo planes could take to the skies within five years.
The staffing changes forecasted by UBS would reflect the number of pilots on a long-haul flight falling from three to two, with one resting as the other sits in the cockpit seat.
In its study published last week, the lender estimated that such a transition could lead to a cost-saving opportunity for the industry of at least $15 billion.
Report co-author and head of EMEA industrials research at UBS, Celine Fornaro, told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Europe” on Friday that the public didn’t realize how close the transition could be.
“You could have single pilot operations for cargo planes and passenger planes, particularly on long-haul, sooner than you expect,” she said, adding that “2022 or 2023 is realistic.”
Fornaro claimed that a pilot is typically in full control of a jet plane for an average of just seven minutes on each flight, essentially taking the reins during take-off and landing.
UBS said commentary from the likes of aerospace giants Airbus and Thales suggested there exists an industry wide drive to reduce crew numbers on planes. The bank’s analysts also revealed that the firm M2C Aerospace is undertaking a program to retrofit existing planes with autonomous flight capability.
Fornaro said, so far, the financial benefit of planes operated by a single pilot had not been priced in by airlines and aerospace companies. UBS has priced the reduction of two pilots to one as a $15 billion in savings opportunity for the airlines it analyzed, with a further $20 billion obtainable from a fully pilotless plane.
It identified carriers with the largest long-haul fleets as the biggest possible winners, naming American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, IAG, Lufthansa and United Airlines.
Survey data collated by UBS suggested that more than half of the general population would be reluctant to board a plane with only one pilot in the cockpit. The bank suggested that this reluctance would disappear within about six years and, to help speed the process, airlines could discount tickets.
“In our report, the airlines can weather a 10 percent discount on specific routes where you only have one pilot without too much impact to their profitability,” said Fornaro.
“Clearly, it is also profitable to the manufactures such as Airbus, Boeing, Thales or Honeywell because they would keep selling the updated technology,” she added.
The pace of change could be stymied, however, by regulators concerned at technology’s effect on pilot performance. In 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released a study suggesting that some commercial airline pilots had become so dependent on automation that they lacked “sufficient or in-depth knowledge and skills” to properly control their planes.
And, in 2017, a flight safety specialist for the British Airline Pilots Association claimed that automated aircraft would be at a higher risk of cyber-attacks.