While the technology exists, safety certification cycles and public buy-in will stop pilotless planes being implemented for a good while yet, according to British Airways chairman and CEO, Alex Cruz.

Cruz was speaking on a panel debate in Hong Kong, which covered automation in rail and cars, as well as planes.

He is quoted as saying he doubts that fully automated, pilotless planes will exist in his lifetime.

The South China Morning Post reports he said: The technology “is there” but “it will take a really long time before we [even] move into the next stage of single pilot operations”.

From a safety certification perspective in aviation, it takes time to move from one stage of development, he said.

“The next stage is not zero pilots it’s one pilot,” Cruz said.

Public support

He added: “I think it will take a significant amount of time before we, humans, are completely convinced that all the safety aspects of a higher degree of in-flight automation of aeroplanes are fully addressed.”

A report last year from UBS found that pilotless planes could technically be in operation as soon as 2025 and represent a $35 billion opportunity in terms of savings and new revenue.

However, over half (54%) of the 8,000 respondents said they would be unlikely to take a pilotless flight, and only 17% said they would be happy to. Younger respondents (aged 18-34) were found to be more willing to fly on a pilotless plane (30%), and “acceptance should grow with time,” UBS concluded.

The latest transport automation debate came in the week that an autonomous Uber car killed a woman in the street in Arizona.

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