Will the inevitability of pilotless planes be the end of badged or branded airlines? It’s one of the big issues that leap off the screen reading today’s essay on the future of flight in the Fairfax media.
As this comprehensively researched and increasingly rare example of long form journalism shows, the control of aircraft, just like many rail services today, will be, inevitably, fundamentally directed from grounded flight control bases, and from them, only in part by humans rather than computers engaging in artificial intelligence.
It isn’t going to happen tomorrow, or in most of our lifetimes, and its exact timing may well depend on how, when, and after how many casualties, automated driving takes over the roads.
Consider the roads situation for a moment. If there were no traffic lights, and vehicles operated to the maximum mathematically possible distances from each other while automatically responding to conditions and challenges (old people, toddlers, cyclists, wandering cattle, or Volkswagens that suddenly stop dead) maybe four times as many vehicles as now clog typical motorways and side streets could make their journeys over them in maybe a quarter of the time.
They would be autoparked in vertical structures where no driver would have to find a space, indeed, where there were no car parks as we know them, just structures without so much floors, but space efficient honeycomb like spots accessed by internal automated industrial strength filing and retrieval devices.
It would be as alien an experience to many of us as the advent of the modern car was to our predecessors accustomed to horses and buggies.
So, once we get used sitting in vehicles that can hurtle without pausing through flat four way intersections coming within centimetres of cars seemingly cutting across or behind us, having eliminated forever the inherent mathematical inefficiencies of using traffic lights, we will be ready for the auto-jets.
There will be casualties. Massive pileups every now and then. But you’ll never read about them, since automated and efficient and economically responsible messaging will not recognise such events on the platforms that inherit the space once occupied by social media, and its clunky predecessor, legacy print and broadcast media, itself no longer referenced anywhere in anything resembling an historical record.
The auto-jets will use an airspace every bit as efficiently used as the automatically driven roads. Jets will be 100 percent safely separated from each other by incredibly tight measures by today’s absurdly spaced out standards. Airport runways and taxiways will look a bit like the roads in that regard. Sure, the odd 1000 passenger intercity flight might inadvertently turn into a cloud of shredded plastic and meat every now and then, but, for the reasons outlined, you’ll never know.
The smooth functioning of the automated roads, railways and airways will continue on, in their benign, socially and economically cohesive manner, even if the odd flight must be sacrificed in order to ensure perfect overall on time performance.
Will there be badged or branded airlines? Why would they exist? The defining marketing value of Qantas, its safety, would be identical to the ‘perfect’ record or all flights, no matter who owned the equipment or sold seats for what price.
What would define the quality of Qantas, or Virgin Australia, if they had no pilots, only programmers probably sourced by lowest price tender to the same global flight direction provider, based, who knows, in Bengaluru, or Baghdad.
If there is still a thing called cabin service, it may well also come from the employees of other global airline service providers, efficiently apportioning their employees with subtle changes in uniform, among the multitude of carriers on their accounts.
Once everything can be allocated a time and place in a system with maximum mathematical efficiency, the concept of badging or branding a service disappears into the background. There is ultimately no point trying to market or differentiate the same thing that everyone takes for granted in their lives anyhow.
Just as there will be no ‘marque’ value in driverless devices that all function to identical standards of maximum transport efficiency, there will be no comparative brand value between airlines. Transport will become an activity, nothing more or less. Assuming our super efficiently managed lives still have a purpose, and our descendants can be bothered being physically transported anywhere.