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Today's pilots could operate multiple planes from the ground in the future, UBS analyst says

  • Airlines in the future could "go from two pilots down to one with a ground control handler," one UBS analyst told CNBC
  • The British Air Line Pilots Association said that while this strategy could save airlines money, "huge investment" would be needed to make it safe
  • Three pilots used to work in the cockpit of a plane in the 1980s, though this number has since reduced to two
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Jobs being threatened, or at least dramatically altered, by automation is a hot topic – and airline pilots are no exception to the trend.

One vision of the future role of pilots, put forward on CNBC's Squawk Box Thursday by UBS analyst Jarrod Castle, was that: "We'll go from two pilots down to one with a ground control handler" who could be monitoring up to 10-20 planes.

"Who better to actually operate the controls but an ex-pilot?" said Castle, one of the analysts behind a recent report by the bank on pilotless planes. He also suggested that today's pilots could also ultimately move into aerospace or avionics instead.

Castle pointed out that the number of pilots in the cockpit of a plane used to be three in the 1980s, though this number has since reduced to two.

"70 percent of accidents are due to human error, not machine error," he added. Castle also said that pilots only actively fly planes for five to 10 percent of the time, and are "monitoring the systems" otherwise.

Castle did preface his assertions by saying that, "At the moment, there's a very big demand for pilots actually given the global fleet delivery schedules." He added that in the coming two decades, the airline industry would likely demand up to half a million pilots. "There will always be a role for those kinds of individuals," he said.

The U.K.'s Civil Aviation Authority confirmed to CNBC via telephone that there were no planned changes regarding the number of pilots required for passenger planes.

Regulation on the number of professionals in a cockpit has been a talking point in recent years, following a Germanwings tragedy in March 2015 in which one pilot locked his counterpart out of the cockpit and then deliberately crashed the plane into the French Alps.

Many airlines subsequently introduced a rule stipulating that two people must be in the cockpit of a plane at any given time, though some have since abolished this.

Steve Landells, safety specialist at the British Air Line Pilots Association, said in a statement that pilots operating planes from the ground was a possibility, but also clarified that his organisation did not believe that genuinely pilotless flight would ever be a reality.

"Automation in the cockpit is not a new thing – it already supports operations. However, every single day pilots have to intervene when the automatics don't do what they're supposed to," he said.

Landells also questioned the safety of remote pilots. "While moving pilots to a control tower on the ground might eventually save airlines money, there would need to be huge investment to make this possible, and even more to make it safe," he added.

"Generally speaking, having a pilot on the aircraft who is as much at risk as the passengers is probably the surest guarantee of safety there can be," Landells said.

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